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Students, Schools Navigate the Inequity of the Digital Divide

With schools closing across the country due to the novel coronavirus, digital learning seems like the antidote. On-the-ground in urban and rural districts, however, there is a more complicated story to be told.

young girl works on laptop
From metropolitan areas in the western United States to the rural counties of the Northeast, public school districts that have closed their doors must educate students who have unequal access to digital learning means. 

Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said his district continues to reach its 700,000-plus students through one of two approaches or a combination of both. The first approach involves the digital learning environment Schoology. Most of the district’s educators and students are trained on it, and the foundation of continued learning with this platform is “an instructional plan that has been developed by the teacher consistent with what’s been happening with the classroom in weeks past.” 

This method, while the standard for the district, can’t help certain students. About one-quarter of the student body lacks Internet access at home, and the district is roughly one-third short of having enough devices for every student. 

“It identifies a real challenge in education with sufficient funding,” Beutner said, before adding, “I wish we were funded like Stanford University is.” 

The second approach is a new partnership with PBS SoCal and KCET that will allow students to consume age-group-specific educational content on the air, regardless of broadband access. PBS is working to “deliver a satellite feed that other public media stations can use,” according to an emailed press release. 

“It’s an open source,” Beutner said. “We are offering it to other districts in California, and many are adopting.” 

A few states over, in Jackson, Wyo., Teton County School District #1, which serves just less than 3,000 students, offers digital learning through a tool called Canvas. Charlotte Reynolds, the district’s communications coordinator, said the secondary students are “quite accustomed” to using Canvas, but some do not have Internet at home. Fortunately, Charter, a local provider, will provide free access to any household with K-12 children. 

For the district’s elementary students, the situation is more challenging, Reynolds said. While every secondary student has a school-provided device, the same can’t be said for elementary kids. The district is working to get devices in the homes of young kids who lack the technology, but even so, not having the traditional school setting will pose learning issues. 

“While [elementary] students use computers and devices in the course of their day, it’s not quite as integrated … just because they’re younger kids,” Reynolds said. “Our high school kids are going to be much more adept … because they’re just more familiar with the tools.” 

Steve Bailey, executive director of the statewide Maine School Management Association, cited a similar situation with devices in Maine. Most of Maine’s older students (grades 6 to 12) have their own devices, but “access for younger students is somewhat limited.” Bailey believes that younger students would face more challenges due to lack of physical student-teacher contact if extended closures are necessary. 

In Carroll County, a rural area of New Hampshire, a lot of virtual learning will be “asynchronous” due to connectivity issues across the state, said Meredith Nadeau, superintendent of schools for School Administrative Unit #13, which encompasses three small districts. 

While Nadeau said there are enough devices for every household, she is asking all teachers to have their material in both digital and non-digital forms. Paper materials can be picked up or delivered by school buses. For digital learning, some hot spots will be deployed in places where families have no reception, but there are also secluded places in the county where hot spots would "do them no good.”

“The digital divide is very evident in places like ours,” Nadeau said. “I hope that the future of our children isn’t determined by their geography and that we find out a way to provide that access to our children regardless of where they live.” 

Based on what she heard at a state superintendents meeting Friday, Nadeau said other regions in the state face similar concerns, where a sufficient supply of devices can be offset by poor broadband availability. She added that a few districts in New Hampshire have better connectivity but not enough devices. 

Atlanta Public Schools, which serves about 55,000 students, has also found that its student body faces significant connectivity challenges. Aleigha Henderson-Rosser, executive director of instructional technology, said the district is attempting to capitalize on digital learning platforms, such as Google Classroom and Edgenuity, that its teachers are familiar with. 

The district has been calling every parent to see if they require a device or Internet connection, as the district has laptops to pass out as well as internet service provider partners that are offering free Internet for a period of time. Through the individual phone calls to households, Henderson-Rosser said it seems that perhaps more than half of student families in the district have a connectivity issue of some type. 

"You may have Internet, but you may have data caps," Henderson-Rosser said. She added later, "It [the pandemic] does teach us that equity matters around what students have. Some kind of way we've got to work to get that all figured out."

Like Los Angeles Unified School District, Atlanta Public Schools will be taking advantage of public broadcasting. Starting next week, the district superintendent and other educators will be leading lessons on a local channel. 

Some urban school districts may face even more severe connectivity concerns. Nevada’s Clark County School District, which serves the city of Las Vegas among others, cannot offer digital learning at this time. 

“As a school system, we don’t have the capacity right now to be able to go into an online learning opportunity,” said Superintendent Jesus F. Jara (see video). “It’s something that we would like to get to, but [we’re] not ready.” 

In another metropolitan case, the School District of Philadelphia ordered teachers in a letter to avoid digital learning due to differential Internet access in the city. 

“To ensure equity, remote instruction should not be provided to students, including through the Internet, technology at home, by phone, or otherwise,” the letter said.

Schools that do engage in digital learning will almost certainly have to overcome hurdles. But some see this unexpected situation as an opportunity to improve. 

“This will take it to a new level and a new paradigm for a lot of people — just making sure we figure out how it works for all our kids,” Reynolds said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.