Schools strive to overcome digital dilemma

food distribution

Tensions abound in much of the world as medical professionals struggle to contain the novel coronavirus, governments look to get the economy back on track and families contemplate how they will navigate the “new normal.”

For the millions of educators responsible for nurturing new generations of Americans, the past few months have whipped up a whirlwind of decisions, from creating crash courses in distance learning to finding new ways to feed students and tend to their mental health. Along the way, this period has painfully exposed the digital divide that deprives young people in underserved communities of the opportunities to learn in the modern age.

Moreover, just as this coronavirus, called COVID-19, continues to slash corporate revenues and wreck the bottom lines of workers, the pandemic is also threatening academic budgets and posing a big question mark for the future: Will students be able to return to classrooms this fall?

Coronavirus-related school closures have disrupted more than 1.5 billion students and 63 million teachers worldwide, according to UNESCO’s Teacher Task Force. In the United States, 118,251 out of 123,952 schools in 48 states; Washington, D.C.; and the five U.S. territories closed their doors and moved to distance learning, affecting nearly 58 million K-12 students, according to MCH Strategic Data.

Kimberly M. Carter headshot

Kimberly M. Carter Superintendent, Battle Creek Public Schools

“It’s a high-stress time right now because you have to make sure all children learn,” said Kimberly Carter, superintendent of Battle Creek Public Schools in Michigan.

“How do we mitigate the impact of poverty, the impact of race, the impact of trauma and a host of other issues, to ensure students have equitable opportunities to learn? Failure is not an option. These are children’s lives we’re talking about.”

The digital dilemma

While some school districts were well-positioned to launch into distance-only learning, many—particularly those in rural or impoverished communities—were not.

David James, superintendent of the Akron Public Schools in Ohio, thought shifting to distance learning would be more of a struggle. Long before the coronavirus, the school district dubbed itself APS Connected Learning.

“We gave teachers a week to flip to Google Classroom assignments,” James said. “The one thing we had going for us is that several years ago, we went one-to-one with technology and provided all our students with Chromebooks they could use daily.”

Before the shutdown, Akron’s elementary schoolchildren didn’t take the laptops home. However, all 21,000 students were able to do so when the district closed schools. Although far from perfect, James is relatively pleased with the results.

“We’ve had about 44 percent of students really engaging, another 40 percent engaging on and off and another 15 percent struggling with internet access,” he said. For those students, Akron leased mobile hotspots to provide ad hoc wireless connectivity.

Yet, each school district’s experience has been different.

In Battle Creek, “We had to literally scramble, really try to figure out how to disrupt the digital divide that is present in our school district,” Carter said. “The majority of our population are considered economically disadvantaged. They need access to basics—such as food, clothing and shelter—let alone digital access.”

Battle Creek distributed each of its Chromebooks, then used its small surplus of funds to procure additional devices.

Student and teacher work on math problems

Detroit Children’s Center student working with a teacher on homework March 14. This individual attention is more difficult to come by with distance learning, now. Photo by Charlotte Smith

“We have families that range from no device in the home to one device in the home but multiple children,” Carter said.

The school system distributed 1,800 devices to those who could pick them up. However, because access to transportation is a problem, the district worked with Communities in Schools—a national organization that helps schools empower at-risk students—to distribute more. The goal was to ensure each of the 2,500 households in the Battle Creek district had one device.

“But how do you expect someone with four children to keep their kids connected and engaged?” Carter asked. “We have to increase the number of devices. We need to be prepared to go one-to-one. No child should be missing out on the opportunity to have a virtual learning experience.”

Alycia Meriweather headshot

Alycia Meriweather Deputy Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District

However, giving students devices without connecting them to the internet doesn’t solve the problem, said Alycia Meriweather, deputy superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD).

Although Battle Creek has purchased and distributed 300 mobile hotspots, Carter said, about 1,000 families still lack internet access.

In Detroit, Meriweather said 85% to 90% percent of public school students lack “educationally adequate devices or internet at home,” and 78 percent of the slightly more than 600,000 Detroit residents access the internet through their phones.

“A cellphone is not the ideal educational device,” Meriweather said.

Before the pandemic, the Detroit district was working to get one-to-one technology use for students during their school day. Administrators, teachers and many K-8 students had one-to-one access to devices. The next phase was providing that same access to high school students.

Then DPSCD received $23 million from Connected Futures, a coalition of businesses and philanthropic organizations. The money allowed the district to get devices into the hands of each of its 51,000 students before the end of the school year and provide six months of internet access in each home (34,000 of them) along with technical support.

While Detroit and Battle Creek work to shore up technology, each district also provides paper-pencil learning packets to many students.

Nevertheless, students there aren’t nearly as engaged as those in Akron, which already had one-to-one technology access.

“I have been honest with our staff about just maintaining levels of achievement,” Carter said. “We are trying to disrupt COVID-caused learning loss.”

In Detroit, Meriweather said homework hotlines are still operating, and teachers are holding online classes. Students who lack a computer or internet access and can’t join by video can still join by phone audio.

Still, educators said, it’s not enough.

The mental health dilemma

Education isn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic. Socialization is an essential part of learning as well, said Dan Greenberg, a high school English teacher at Southview High School in Sylvania, Ohio.

Dan Greenberg headshot

Dan Greenberg Southview High School English teacher

Before schools closed, Greenberg and his wife, Nicki, struggled daily to get one of their daughters up and ready for school. Sometimes, she even begged to be home-schooled. Yet, when he told his daughter school was canceled, she cried.

“That’s how big a deal this is,” Greenberg said. “Socialization is important for the kids. If we don’t end up reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ next year, I’ll be sad because I like teaching it. But it’ll be OK. The most important thing is dealing with the trauma affecting kids.”

Helping children maintain their current levels of achievement means providing support not only for their academics but also for their mental health during traumatic periods such as the pandemic, Carter said.

“School buildings—especially for students in high-poverty, high-trauma areas—are sanctuaries,” Meriweather said. “We provide academics, but there’s this other element of a safe space where someone is greeting you, asking about you, encouraging you and pushing you to move along in your studies.”

As a school district that promotes a culture of safety, empowerment and healing, Battle Creek redeployed substitute teachers, ancillary staff and others to conduct welfare checks on students—call to ask how they’re doing, what they need and then connect them with resources to meet their basic needs.

“We already had in place some structures that helped us respond in a rapid way to the COVID crisis,” Carter said. To serve its students, the district works with medical and mental health providers, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Battle Creek Police Department, among others.

Similarly, Detroit set up a mental health hotline and, like many other school districts around the country, has teachers check on each student.

Akron Superintendent James said the student board has been a valuable resource in letting his district know what students need, and community partners have helped provide counseling resources.

“They can’t go to the park, they can’t go to the mall,” he said. “It’s very difficult for kids to deal with.”

Students aren’t the only ones struggling, however.

Greenberg, who is also president of the Sylvania Education Association, said it’s a stressful time for teachers as well. Among other issues, he said, they are concerned about their families as well as their students. They’ve lost the order and structure they thrive on. And they worry about being compliant with federal laws governing the education of special-needs students.

Dan Greenberg talks with two male and two female students at a table in a classroom

Dan Greenberg, an English teacher at Southview High School in Sylvania, Ohio, interacting with students before school buildings closed due to COVID-19. Photo provided by Dan Greenberg

“You turn your head this way or that way, and there is a litany of issues they’re dealing with,” said Greenberg, struggling to hold back tears. “I’ve had colleagues ask for a leave of absence even though they don’t have to physically show up at school. I take their stress to heart.”

Teachers nationwide are coping by engaging with colleagues through virtual meetings and talks with school counselors. Greenberg—who receives calls, texts and emails from distressed teachers all day and night—has been going to see a counselor twice weekly.

“As president of the teacher association, I feel personally responsible for all of the teachers,” he said. “Their problems and concerns are my problems and concerns. It really is hard to just cut it off and decompress.”

The hunger dilemma

In a normal school year, the National School Lunch Program operates in about 100,000 pre-K-12 schools, providing low-cost or free lunches to nearly 30 million children at school daily. Then, in mid-March, schools across the country began closing, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture began allowing program flexibility.

“Our food services staff has been on the front lines of this, working feverishly,” Carter said. Since March 13, the Battle Creek district has distributed more than 200,000 meals. Students pick up two days of breakfast and lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays and three days of meals on Fridays, or Communities In Schools delivers to those without transportation.

Detroit, which has a similar grab-and-go plan, created 19 sites for meal pickup, Meriweather said. The district is also connecting families in need with resources such as food banks. In Akron, James said bus drivers, school security staff and community partners have helped distribute 10,000 to 14,000 meals daily to children in need.

The reopening dilemma

Although school administrators across the U.S. can’t act until they receive gubernatorial and CDC guidance for opening classrooms this fall, they are heavily engaged in planning.

“First and foremost is answering this guiding question,” Greenberg said: “What can we do to best serve our students and their families?”

School systems are developing a plan A, B, C, D and E. But more questions continue to arise.

“We know no one will be happy with what we do,” Greenberg said. “We’re trying to do it with good conscience, keeping in mind the science, the social distancing aspect.”

In urban schools, James said, class size is an issue. “If we’re going to have a smaller class size to be safe, that means no more than 10 kids in a classroom,” he said. “It would be impossible for us to serve all the kids in our buildings.”

Making that work could mean different schedules for kids. For instance, some students may attend school Mondays and Wednesdays, while others attend Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or, perhaps one group of students attends on Monday, Wednesday and Friday one week and Tuesday and Thursday the next week.

Graph showing percentage of students at $10000 income increasing at increments

Pew Research Center

Meriweather hopes schools in Detroit can return to face-to-face learning but said schools envision a variety of scenarios, including modified face-to-face with social distancing or a hybrid of face-to-face and online learning—which Detroit would be able to do because of Connected Futures.

Another plan might be using all of a district’s school buildings for elementary students and having high school students continue distance learning, Carter said.

“And do we need to extend the school day, since we’re going to be in recovery mode when we return in the fall?” she said.

Also, James asked, how do you get kids who don’t have transportation to the schools?

“There are typically more than 40 students on a bus,” he said. “To socially distance, we could only have 10 to 15 kids on a bus. My thinking is that we start completely virtual, then slowly bring students back, maybe starting with kindergarten or special-needs students.”

Teachers, secretaries, bus drivers and food service workers have been expressing their concerns, James said.

“What do we do about PPE (personal protective equipment) when health care workers need it first?” he said. “The same question goes with food. How does returning to school impact how we feed our kids? These are complex issues, and all of them are interconnected.”

The budget dilemma

Underscoring these issues are unstable state economies. Each reopening plan requires money. But with revenue down in most states, schools face significant budget cuts.

Battle Creek’s Carter fears the budget consequences of buying the technology necessary to effectively teach remotely.

“We did a lot of hard work to pull ourselves out of a deficit and have been fiscally responsible over the last couple of years,” she said. Now, the district is using its fund balance to purchase equipment it didn’t expect to buy.

DPSCD expects it will need to add about $3 million of its own funds to meet the Connected Futures goal of providing each student a device and internet access by the end of this school year, Meriweather said.

“Cuts will hurt high-poverty districts even more because the needs are so much greater. Different students have different needs,” Meriweather said. “That’s the difference between equity and equality. Social services, teaching non-English speakers, special needs—those cost more money.

“There’s only a certain amount you can cut before you are really compromising the quality of service you are providing to students.”

(This story was originally published by the Ford Motor Company Fund.)

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