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Texas Schools Start Online Amid Digital Divide Issues

As the Fort Worth, Texas, schools and other districts prepare to start the school year online, the stakes for students on the other side of the digital divide have gotten even higher.

by Silas Allen, Fort Worth Star-Telegram / August 24, 2020
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(TNS) — Last spring, as Fort Worth, Texas, ISD shut down its buildings to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kelly Richey repackaged the material she covered in her English classes at North Side High School into online assignments that could be done from home.

During each lesson, students would watch a video and perform a few short tasks before they got to the core of the assignment. Each lesson was designed to take about 15 minutes.

But once online classes started, Richey noticed the time it took to finish the assignments varied drastically from one student to the next. A lesson that took one student 15 minutes could take another student an hour to complete, she said. While the online courses worked well enough for students with fast internet connections, Richey learned those with slower or unstable connections had problems.

It was especially an issue for families with two or three school-aged children who relied on a single wifi hotspot to do their work. Some of Richey’s students would get halfway through the tasks, then their internet connection would drop. Once they got back online, they’d have to start over again, she said. Over a full slate of classes, those delays could add several hours to a student’s school day, she said.

Those problems are just a small slice of what education researchers and school leaders call the homework gap. Nationwide, students in Black, Hispanic and low-income households are less likely than their peers to have access to the high-speed internet connections they need to do their homework. Like Fort Worth ISD, many districts rely on mobile wifi hotspots to close that gap, but those devices bring about challenges of their own.

Now, as Fort Worth ISD and other districts prepare to start the school year online, the stakes for those students are even higher.

“It is a very serious problem,” said Jordana Barton, a senior community development adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “It’s not just about not being able to do your homework. Now, it’s about having access to school.”

District to hand out hotspots

Across the state, just 43% of students whose families fall below the federal poverty line have computers and broadband internet access at home, according to a study commissioned by the Texas State Teachers Association. That’s compared with 74% of middle- and upper-income families, according to the study. White students were also more likely than Black or Hispanic students to have access to both broadband internet and computers.

About 16% of students in Fort Worth ISD don’t have internet access at home, said Clint Bond, a spokesman for the district. But that number is “a bit of a moving target” as students continue to enroll, he said.

Last month, the Fort Worth ISD Board of Trustees voted to push the first day of school back until after Labor Day, and to delay the start of in-person classes until at least four weeks after the beginning of the school year. At the same time, the board voted to spend $2.4 million to buy a combined 10,000 laptops and wifi hotspots. Those devices are in addition to the combined 24,000 laptops and wifi hotspots the district distributed last spring.

School districts across North Texas and nationwide are doing the same. It hasn’t always gone well: This month, families in Mansfield ISD waited in long lines, some for 10 hours or more, to pick up laptops. In a letter to parents, Mansfield ISD Superintendent Kimberly Cantu apologized for the wait times and outlined a new distribution plan district officials hoped would cut down on wait times.

Bond said Fort Worth ISD will distribute devices for students at the schools where the students are enrolled. If parents who are eligible for the devices drive to the correct schools, the district should be able to avoid the kinds of overloads parents in Mansfield ISD saw, Bond said.

The district has enough devices to meet the needs they know of now, Bond said. But the district is still waiting for roughly 20,000 students to enroll, he said. Once they do, officials will have a better idea of whether they need to buy more.

Digital divide is long term problem

Supplying students with laptops and mobile hotspots is a temporary fix to a long-term problem, said Barton, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas adviser. But Barton, who studies how the digital divide affects communities in Texas, said the pandemic forced districts to act quickly, and it didn’t leave them many options.

One of the problems with buying and distributing hotspots is that it’s expensive, Barton said. Under normal circumstances, districts could spend the same amount of money and be well on their way toward building a system to offer universal broadband access. But school districts didn’t have time to wait, she said. Leaving students without internet access for months would have meant cutting them off from school entirely.

“It’s like saying low-income kids can’t get a textbook,” she said. “You’re not going to give them the same opportunity.”

Even some Fort Worth ISD families who had what they needed at the beginning of online classes ended up needing help. Eboni Parker’s son, Jo’Ziah, will be a second-grader at Fort Worth ISD’s Leadership Academy at Maude I. Logan Elementary School next month. When schools shut down, it took Jo’Ziah a while to settle into online classes.

“It was kind of difficult, but we managed,” Parker said.

Parker has internet access at home, and when online classes started, she had a laptop for Jo’Ziah to use for school work. But a few weeks later, the laptop broke. Parker bought a new tablet for Jo’Ziah to use, but it wasn’t compatible with Jo’Ziah’s online classes. So Parker contacted Jo’Ziah’s teacher, and a couple of days later, the district had a Chromebook for him to use.

Through that entire process, Jo’Ziah missed about a week of online classes, Parker said. That wasn’t ideal, she said, but his teacher told her that he’d been ahead on his assignments, so he didn’t need to worry about making anything up.

School districts must be prepared

The pandemic didn’t create the problem that districts are now trying to solve, said Peggy Semingson, a professor in the University of Texas at Arlington’s College of Education. The digital divide has affected families for years. The pandemic, and the school shutdowns it forced, just brought the issue to the surface, she said.

Semingson, who specializes in distance learning, said a number of factors such as income, race and geography, affect which side of the divide families will fall on. Low-income people and people of color are more likely not to have high-speed internet access at home or devices that can connect to it. Rural areas are less likely to have the infrastructure to support broadband internet, she said. They’re also more likely to have spotty cell service, meaning wifi hotspots are less effective as a short-term solution during the shutdowns.

A lack of access to broadband internet and internet-enabled devices likely kept many students from participating in online classes last spring, Semingson said, pointing to data from the Texas Education Agency that showed nearly 10% of economically disadvantaged students across the state didn’t engage with school at all during last spring’s shutdowns. That’s compared to just 3% for students who aren’t economically disadvantaged.

Across the state, Black and Hispanic students were less likely to be fully engaged in online learning last spring than were their white peers, according to the TEA data.

While she acknowledged that reliable internet access was likely just one among several factors leading to the disparities in engagement with online courses, Semingson said the number of students who were left out of school is worrisome.

One of the issues that districts need to consider when they implement online learning is bandwidth, said Joan Hughes, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education. Mobile hotspots like the ones Fort Worth ISD is handing out aren’t always up to the task of hours of online classes, especially in households where more than one child is trying to work at the same time, she said.

Hughes, who specializes in distance learning and educational technology, said districts in which large numbers of students are connected via hotspots need to consider those issues when they’re developing their plans for online courses. Having those students try to spend all day in synchronous classes, where they’re connected with their teachers and other students in real time, most likely won’t work, she said. In those cases, teachers would be better off using video conferencing programs like Zoom for occasional check-ins rather than an entire day’s worth of classes.

Once districts have issued students equipment for working from home, they also need to make sure they know how to use it, Hughes said. Many students and parents haven’t used hotspots or laptops before. Districts need to train families on how to fix common problems and have tech support available to troubleshoot more complex issues, she said.

District uses buses for internet access

School leaders across the country have found creative ways to deal with the digital divide. In April, Coachella Valley Unified School District, in rural southern California about 135 miles east of Los Angeles, began sending school buses fitted with wifi routers each school day to park near apartment complexes and trailer parks, where many students without internet access live. The buses arrive every morning before online school starts and stay until about 6 p.m.

The buses provide connectivity to large parts of the community while the district finds, buys and distributes wifi hotspots, said district superintendent Maria Gandera. It’s a model the district has used at times in the past, she said, and one that other districts across the country, including Austin ISD, have adopted. The advantage, she said, is that it’s relatively easy for the district to keep track of where there’s a lack of internet connectivity and send a bus to those areas.

The drawback is that the buses are only in the neighborhoods at certain hours of the day. Because the buses go back to the bus barn at about 6 p.m., they’re no help to students who want to do their homework later in the evening. They also aren’t a permanent solution to the problem. The ultimate goal is still to have affordable internet access everywhere in the Coachella Valley, Gandera said. But that will take time, and it isn’t something the school district can do on its own. In the meantime, the wifi buses, in conjunction with individual wifi hotspots, can help fill a gap.

Getting online learning right

On Aug. 13, Gloria Sherman, of Fort Worth, was waiting for information about how she could get laptops for her two grandsons to use for their online classes. The boys, ages 8 and 5, will go to Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary School when school starts next month.

Sherman has internet access at home, but she doesn’t have computers for them to do their school work. When schools shut down last March, Hope Farm, a nonprofit that works with boys without a father figure, lent the family a tablet that Sherman’s oldest grandson could use for the rest of the school year.

Last school year, a coworker of Sherman’s offered to help with setting up online classes through Google Classroom. But now, that coworker has left for college. Sherman works 12-hour night shifts at JPS Health Network. She isn’t looking forward to coming home from long shifts at the hospital to wrangle the technology needed for her grandsons’ online classes. She’d hoped the district would be able to go back to school in person by the beginning of the school year, she said.

“It is what it is,” she said. “I just have to do the best I can.”

Richey, the English teacher, said she’s confident that Fort Worth ISD can get distance learning right this year. Teachers have had more of a chance to prepare, and they’ve got a better idea of how to reach their students through distance learning.

The best place for students to learn is in a physical classroom with a teacher, Richey said. But that isn’t the only setting where students can learn, she said. She has faith that she and her fellow teachers will make online learning work, no matter how long they have to.

“If we get this wrong, kids are going to be behind. They’re not going to get the foundational skills that they need to move up to the next level,” she said. “But I think that we don’t necessarily have to get this wrong just because we’re not in person.”

©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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