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Pandemic Exposes Equity, Access Gaps in Distance Learning

As schools rapidly transition to online learning during the COVID-19 crisis, there's growing evidence that poor planning coupled with insufficient tech resources have diminished K-12 education for some students.

It’s a May afternoon, and for the sixth graders at Acequia Madre Elementary School in Santa Fe, N.M., it’s time to present their projects on ancient civilizations. One student explains to his classmates how cats were revered in ancient Egypt, displaying a replica of a tomb made out of a cardboard box, complete with a prowling feline represented by a matchbox-sized toy robot. 

Like most K-12 schools across the nation, Acequia Madre is now empty, closed since March 13 in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Student presentations, like each day’s morning circle time and afternoon check-ins, are being conducted over Google Meet. In between, students work on online reading and math lessons, along with home music, art, and outdoor activities shared by the school’s pullout teachers. 

“For the most part, education completely changed in a week,” says Kathy Casaus, the school’s principal. “Some of those shifts were hard, but then it was okay.”

For more than 50 million K-12 students in Santa Fe and across the nation, school has continued in new forms as districts rapidly shifted to remote instruction at a pace which would have been unthinkable just months ago. “This is an inflection moment that will forever change the way that students learn,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), an association of school technology leaders.

K-12 systems across the country have leveraged ongoing technology investments, including online learning platforms and 1:1 initiatives that put a laptop or tablet in the hands of each student. However, even districts which have made significant investments in technology have struggled during the pandemic to make sure all students can stay connected to learning, raising important questions about equity and access. 

In California’s Coachella Valley, for example, the Desert Sands Unified School District has not only provided students with Chromebooks as part of a 1:1 initiative, but also installed broadband receivers to ensure that students throughout the far-reaching rural district could get Internet access at home. Even so, Indio High School Principal Derrick Lawson points to the same kinds of challenges that have left millions of students nationwide unable to participate in online learning.

One student has no Internet access at home and started working on a farm after schools closed to help his parents pay the bills. “He’s trying to help his family survive and Zooming into his classroom from the fields with the boss’ phone because he has no access to Wi-Fi himself,” says Lawson.

Problems with Plans and Tech Access

At Acequia Madre Elementary, the call to close school buildings came the Thursday afternoon before spring break. Every student needed to be sent home the next day with a device. As part of the district’s 1:1 program, the school had the devices on hand, but there was one unexpected challenge. The tablets and Chromebooks were intended for classroom use, meaning they were stored on carts without individual chargers, prompting a scramble by the district’s technology staff to find and deliver 180 chargers in time for school the next day. 

“Then,” says Casaus, “everything happened really quickly.” 

Over spring break, the district’s technology team came up with a plan to prepare teachers for online instruction, which was then delivered the following week as teachers divided their time between training and contacting families to ensure that each student had access to food and that their devices were working. One week later, online learning went live, making Santa Fe the first school district in New Mexico to make the transition. Even now, “working through this is a day by day thing,” Casaus says. “Luckily, the district had a plan in place. We may veer off a little bit, but we can get back on.”

The transition wasn’t as smooth everywhere. School districts took weeks or longer to develop distance learning plans, required by many state education departments. Training teachers and helping parents take on new roles supporting their children proved challenging. Districts had to deal with “Zoom bombing” and other security and privacy challenges. Outside of Washington, D.C., Fairfax County Public Schools saw its distance learning efforts stall after systems slowed to a crawl. 

The extent to which distance learning plans mirror classroom instruction also remains uneven. An analysis of 82 districts serving nearly 9 million students conducted by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that six weeks into school closures, 100 percent of surveyed districts were providing access to educational resources and nearly as many had developed a formal curriculum. Only about two-thirds, however, required teacher check-ins and feedback on student work, and only half were assigning grades or had created what CRPE calls a “comprehensive remote learning plan,” including direct instruction and feedback on student work. Fewer still are formally taking attendance.

In most places, the greatest challenges have been beyond the district’s own buildings. “The bottleneck of connectivity today is at home,” CoSN’s Krueger says. “For teachers and students, this is where the classroom is, and this is where the learning is taking place.”

Estimates of the number of students without access to the Internet at home vary, but all are large, and all suggest that low-income, rural and minority families are more likely to be impacted by what’s been termed “the homework gap.” A Pew Research Center study has found that 15 percent of households with school-age children lack an Internet connection at home. A more recent analysis conducted by Funds For Learning estimates that students in 7.15 million families aren’t able to attend remote classes, though other projections have placed that number as high as 12 million students. 

In Detroit, for example, students and staff were already “very familiar with utilizing online tools during the school day,” using a common platform to access a wide range of online learning options such as Khan Academy, according to a FAQ for parents prepared by the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The district had provided devices to more than 34,000 students. But in the first week after school buildings closed, only 10 percent of students were accessing the district’s online learning tools. “The district has the online tools, and students and staff know how to use them,” the FAQ states. “The issue is access at home.”

Many state education departments explicitly stated that distance learning plans had to accommodate all students, including those with disabilities and those without access to the Internet. Districts throughout the nation have attempted to address the access issue by partnering with businesses, community organizations and Internet providers to provide discounted or low-cost access, distributing hot spots, and even parking Wi-Fi-equipped school buses in neighborhoods. The Detroit Public Schools Community District has now partnered with a group of community foundations on a $23 million project to provide 51,000 students with wireless tablets and Internet access.

But equity and the challenges of ensuring Internet access have prompted some districts to end spring classes early. In Georgia, at least 17 school districts ended the year early in part due to problems with technology, giving more than 1 in 10 students in the state an early start to summer break and raising questions about whether all students will be on track when school resumes.

Donald Gately sees the disparity firsthand. “We’ve got districts where teachers are almost following a regular schedule via remote learning — they’re replicating the experiences kids were having when school was open,” says Gately, who is principal of Jericho Middle School on Long Island, N.Y. “And then there are other nearby communities where kids pick up paper packets, and that’s what’s passing for school. The equity gap is definitely going to widen.”

More Funds from the Feds?

Signed into law in late March, the CARES Act includes $13.2 billion in funding to help address immediate needs in K-12 education, including tools and resources for distance education. A wide range of education advocates, however, have said that’s not enough to meet the needs. 

In late April, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., introduced the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020. The House bill, which could be included in forthcoming stimulus packages, would provide $2 billion in emergency funding for the federal E-rate program, which has essentially made Internet access within schools universal over the past two decades, to support out-of-school connectivity for students and staff. In mid-May, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., followed suit with a companion Senate bill increasing the proposed funding to $4 billion.

“We have watched family rooms and kitchens become classrooms and computers take the place of blackboards. During these uncertain times it’s imperative that we do not let the education of millions of Americans fall by the wayside,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

One rationale for both the CARES stimulus and proposed E-rate funding is that even after school buildings reopen, investments in distance learning will lead to lasting changes in teaching and learning. 

“I think many of us are going to look back on this period of time and reflect on building a more thoughtful long-term approach that’s less reactive and more proactive,” says Pete Just, chief operations and technology officer of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana. “Education has an opportunity to never be the same. I hope we don’t go back to everything we’ve done.”

At Acequia Madre Elementary, Casaus envisions students continuing what they’ve learned once classrooms reopen. With the school’s emphasis on project-based learning and environmental issues, she sees students continuing to make presentations interactive and sharing them with the community and beyond.

“There’s a whole new realm of opportunities because of what we’ve learned,” she says.

Mark Toner is a GOVERNING contributor.
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