In response to the coronavirus pandemic last March, schools across the country closed their doors and pivoted quickly to distance learning. School and district leaders scrambled to distribute paper packets, devices and mobile hotspots, as well as to get students connected to free or inexpensive broadband internet. Inequities became apparent almost immediately as many students faced challenges accessing online classes.
With many schools now starting the new year in a hybrid or fully digital model, we took a look at how school leaders are building on lessons learned from the spring, testing out innovative approaches to digital learning and ensuring that students, particularly those who are most vulnerable, have what they need to be successful.
The digital divide is not a new phenomenon
The digital divide—also known as “the homework gap”—existed long before the pandemic. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that a third of rural Americans said they did not have a broadband internet connection at home. Ownership of desktop or laptop computers among rural Americans has only risen slightly since 2008. A Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data showed that one in five school-aged children do not have high-speed internet in their home; that number increases to one in three when focused on children from low-income households.
Many district leaders, like Superintendent Robert Runcie in Broward County, Fla., had been working to eliminate this gap over the past several years and were therefore better positioned for the shift to distance learning last March. (Broward is one of six districts that participated in The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Supervisor Initiative.) The district had invested in infrastructure including a single sign-on system for teachers and staff; a learning management system called Canvas, which allowed for blended learning and sharing of ideas and curricula across the district; and a decreased ratio of students to computers, shifting from 6:1 to 1:1, effectively.
Making the call this fall
The unprecedented crisis and limited federal guidance meant that district leaders faced complex decisions about whether or how to open their buildings.
“And that was, in some cases, at the expense of time and energy focused on making virtual learning as good as it can be,” said Allison Socol, assistant director of P-12 policy at The Education Trust (one of Wallace’s communications partners) and co-author of a report on promising digital learning practices from districts across the country.
Runcie started planning at the end of last spring for the very real possibility school would still be virtual in the fall. His team worked to understand best practices and recommendations for re-opening from other school systems across the country and around the world. At the time, infection rates in Florida were increasing and he knew his district was nowhere near ready to re-open in person. Schools opened in August with 100 percent virtual learning.
Lessons learned so far this fall
In Broward, with devices distributed and access to internet supported by partnerships with Comcast and AT&T, Runcie turned his attention toward teachers.
“We wanted to make sure that there was a consistent level of high-quality education experiences online this year,” he said.
His district spent the summer training teachers to be more confident and effective using the online platform and tools. They found that some teachers had already risen to “master expert” level when it came to using these tools, and tapped their newfound expertise to help build capacity of others.
Despite the number of challenges school leaders face, Socol notes that school and district leaders have “really rise(n) to the occasion … and marshalled all of their resources and all of their people to meet the needs of students who are most struggling.”
A report Socol co-wrote in collaboration with Digital Promise, “With Schools Closed and Distance Learning the Norm, How is Your District Meeting the Needs of Its Students?,” compiles innovative strategies and best practices districts are using to improve digital learning, particularly for their most vulnerable students. Some highlights include:
- New Orleans distributed tens of thousands of Chromebooks, making students experiencing homelessness a priority
- New York City Public Schools partnered with Apple and T-Mobile to provide LTE-enabled iPads to students
- Rock Hill Public Schools in South Carolina provided curbside IT support outside of school buildings
- Highline Public Schools in Washington state and Austin school districts sent wifi-equipped buses to apartment complexes and neighborhoods where students struggled with internet access
- In Phoenix Union High School District, district leaders instituted a program in which an adult contacts every student every day to ensure they and their families have what they need
- In New Orleans and San Francisco, free student support hubs involve adults besides classroom teachers in helping students with digital learning in small group settings
Socol notes that sharing these ideas across state borders is an important role that state leaders can play.
“We would love to see state leaders think about how to collect information about what districts are doing, to track data on the success of these new initiatives…and then to help share those practices with other districts that are still trying to figure out how to help students learn in this moment,” she said.
Prioritizing historically underserved students
Despite school leaders’ best efforts to equip students with the devices they need to participate in digital learning, there is more work to be done, particularly for students of color and those from low-income households.
“There are so many other challenges besides just having a computer or an iPad or the internet,” Socol points out. “Students need a quiet space in order to participate and engage in online instruction. They need access to support if their internet’s down…. Younger students may need an adult there to help them access the instruction online.”
Runcie is still focused on helping Broward students who are struggling with basic needs, who may be left at home alone at a young age or who may be facing abuse. Part of Broward’s distance learning planning includes ensuring that social services are maintained. Since June, Runcie reports that social workers have provided 160,000 interventions in response to over 36,000 referrals.
Socol encourages school and district leaders to focus their efforts and energies on thinking of those students most underserved by the public school system. Some districts, such as Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, are planning to phase in in-person learning, starting with students with disabilities, English-language learners and those from low-income families.
Advice for other school leaders
Communication and transparency are at the top of Runcie’s priority list this fall, and he urges other district leaders to focus on the same.
“Communicate, communicate, communicate. Do it with integrity and be transparent, straight up with the community, what challenges you’re facing, what the approaches are and make sure you’re listening to them,” Runcie said.
His district conducted three major surveys of families. They held town halls and forums, partnering closely with the PTA, the special needs student advisory council and the school board.
Socol echoed the need to communicate regularly and honestly, adding a call for data collection. She hopes to see schools and districts conducting diagnostic assessments at the beginning of the school year to understand where students are and what they need to make up for lost instructional time. “And we need to see continued communication and transparency from school systems about how [distance learning] is going,” she added.
Finally, Runcie would like to see his fellow superintendents invest in technology, which includes both infrastructure and training for teachers and staff.
“Digital learning is something I believe is going to be here with us for the long run,” he said, noting that many children may have underlying health conditions or live in multigenerational households, factors that could keep them at home even if schools reopen their doors for in-person learning. “I think it’s something that you’ve got to commit to do, because I think it’s going to be part of our portfolio of offerings and the type of flexibility that we need to have in public education going forward.”