TaeChaun and Sancell Jeffries, two teenage African-American brothers in Bexar County, Texas, received free Chromebooks, a relatively inexpensive laptop model produced by Google, in April to do
online distance learning after their school closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there was just one problem—their house did not have internet access. The Jeffries brothers are just two of the millions of students across the country who are struggling with virtual learning because of one of three reasons: (1) they do not have a computer at home; (2) they have a computer but do not have reliable or any internet access; or (3) they are doing their coursework on smartphones with limited data plans. Common Sense Media found that 4 in 10 teens nationwide have not been able to participate in online learning since schools closed. The underlying digital divide existed before the pandemic; but now we are seeing more clearly the consequences of having failed to address it. Unsurprisingly, this divide is most pronounced among economically disadvantaged black, indigenous, and Latinx students. Students of all races in rural areas also suffer from disproportionately inadequate access to computers, smartphones, and the internet.
School districts across the country are hard at work to address these divisions, most of them without the resources necessary to successfully bridge them; and at the same time, they are grappling with how to handle the disparities once it’s safe to reopen school doors. Possible solutions have ranged wildly in quality, from the good (summer school or starting school a few weeks early) to the troubling (
retention, or holding back, for low-income students). As districts make these difficult decisions, they must remember, and listen closely to, their most powerful policy experts: their teachers. It is imperative to center the voices of teachers who have had to adapt abruptly to virtual classrooms, and who will be most responsible for ensuring that students catch up. Teachers must also empathize with their students’ social-emotional health, particularly as some children of frontline workers are being traumatically separated from a parent.
To gain their perspectives and spotlight their insights, TCF has interviewed eleven teachers from across the country who are diverse by race, regions, and school type (public, private, charter, and boarding). We have used pseudonyms for the teachers in Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C. Furthermore, we describe what the federal government needs to do next in its response to the crisis: ensure internet access to every student.
Here is what the teachers we spoke with had to say.
Kirsten Weaver is a mom and is in her first year teaching at Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, a public charter school in St. Louis, a city where, to date, over
80 percent of COVID-19 related deaths have been among African-Americans. Out of her forty middle school students, one is white, one is Latinx, and the remainder are African-American. The school’s administration has been supportive of their students, and has had uncommon means with which to be so. St. Louis-area schools closed starting March 18 in response to the pandemic, and Hawthorne students received Chromebooks and hotspots, technology which provides wifi using cell phone service. However, only about 20 percent of Kirsten’s students log into Zoom classes. According to Kirsten, the biggest disparity is among her most vulnerable students. She asserted that “children of essential workers are more prone to getting sick, and some students have to babysit their siblings during the day; I do not know how to hold them accountable.” School buildings in St. Louis are closed for the remainder of the school year, and when asked about summer school, Kirsten recommends distributing a survey to gauge parental support. Mississippi
Brezana Cross is a first grade teacher at Bentonia Gibbs Elementary School in Bentonia, Mississippi, where the school building will be shuttered through the end of this semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The school is Title I, and over 50 percent of its students are white. Brezana commented that “internet access is terrible, and some things we ask parents to do virtually is not possible.” She recommends prioritizing access to Chromebooks and doing summer school as a remediation option for students who are behind. She also recommends doing a partial day of school on Saturdays.
Conversely, Lavoncia McGee is having fewer challenges with e-learning. She teaches at The Piney Woods School, an independent, historically African-American boarding school in Piney Woods, Mississippi. The school also has a sizable population of international students. Tuition can be upwards of $35,000 per year, but the school offers free and reduced price tuition for low-income students. Lavonia teaches algebra and science for grades nine through twelve. Every student had already received a Chromebook prior to the onset of the pandemic, as part of ordinary school policy and investment, and it so was a simple transition to full-time e-learning, due to most of the curriculum already being online. Lavoncia said she feels fortunate because a significant number of students do not have internet access in Mississippi, particularly in low-income and rural areas. But at The Piney Woods School, students went home due to COVID-19 with their Chromebooks and they all have access to the internet that the students had to provide themselves.
“Ashley Walker” is a white middle school teacher at a charter school in Western Massachusetts. The majority of her students are economically disadvantaged black and Latinx youth, with a small Russian and Turkish population. Ashley similarly sees the biggest disparity among children of essential workers. Her school is very close to Baystate Hospital in Springfield, and the parents of some of her students are frontline health care workers. Some students do not have Chromebooks, and students and parents were given a designated time to pick up academic materials at the school. The materials included Chrombeooks and anything else that may have been left in the students’ lockers. However, the school does not provide hard copies of work for students who do not have internet access, and they are not exempted from the work they cannot complete. Ashley commented that “ I have even offered to print and mail the materials to families personally and [the school] has not allowed it.”
However, some children of essential workers could not come during that time. Ashley commented that “some of my students are quarantined and separated from their parents. They are the primary caregivers for their siblings and are expected to do their schoolwork.” Students without internet access are receiving a failing grade. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 7 percent of her students had below average grades. During COVID-19 and the e-learning that it has required, 57 percent of her students are failing due to incomplete work. She underscores the digital divide her students are experiencing and recommends summer school being optional. At the end of summer school, a test to determine proficiency should be given to students.
Beyond the issue of whether or not a student will have access to a computer or the internet, another factor has been the amount of time in which a student has been provided with which to obtain them if they don’t already have them. Jemise Sawyer, a middle school teacher at Chesapeake Math and IT Academy, commented that “We lucked out,” but that there are still disparities. She teaches at an IT charter school, and students are required to have a computer at home upon admission, which the parents must provide. Students were given specified times to pick up a Chromebook once schools closed due to the pandemic, with which to connect to the school’s distance learning program; however, not all students were able to come, and some of her students must share their desktop computers at home with family members who are also home. Furthermore, Jemise’s students, like other students, are struggling to find quiet places to learn. The biggest challenge is that she can only teach one lesson per subject each week, and she has to choose the most important concept to teach weekly. All her students will be automatically socially promoted, meaning they will advance to the next academic year; but she recommends eliminating standardized testing for the next school year, because teachers are going to struggle with catching students up.
A kindergarten teacher, Danyelle Wilson teaches at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Clover, South Carolina. She has been teaching for six years and compared the resource gap where she teaches currently to when she taught in Hilton Head, an island off the coast of the state where the majority of students are Hispanic, many families do not have internet at home, and there are language barriers between teachers and their students and students’ families. She said she feels fortunate that Oak Ridge was already piloting e-learning and was proactive in distributing packets to parents, in-person and digitally. It is not mandatory to teach virtual classes in her district, but she wanted to give parents a break from doing e-learning with their children and remain connected with her students. Students are required to complete the e-learning packets with their parents. She does virtual teaching with them so they can maintain the classroom environment digitally and to prevent them from falling behind.
The challenge many of her kindergarten parents face is not having access to a dedicated device for their child to use. While the school has iPads that the kindergartners have used, families have not been allowed to take these home. Parents would like to have these iPads to do activities and virtual classes. Some parents who did not have wifi before have purchased wifi so that they can do virtual classes; and the district does offer wifi in all parking lots of Clover schools as an option for parents. Danyelle teaches virtually for three hours each day of the week. She feels fortunate that all twenty-three of her students participate. Two of those students she sees in addition to her one hour class time for one-on-one virtual lessons. She uses that time to provide extra support. She said that her colleagues in other parts of South Carolina face greater challenges. Danyelle is unsure of summer school being an option, because students and parents are already overwhelmed from having to do e-learning for the past two months. She does not want the love of learning to be lost by having students do extra schooling over the summer.
Mateka Parker is a middle school teacher at Southside Middle School in Florence, South Carolina. She teaches in a very rural area with a majority African-American student cohort. The school receives Title I funding. According to Mateka, distance learning has been an uphill adjustment. She uploads a lesson for her students every day via Google Classroom, a free internet service that facilitates the distribution of coursework and assignments. Currently, all of her students have access to the internet, but she “worries about their mental stability.” She tries to make sure her students know that she is here for them. In her district, hotspots have made the biggest difference in giving her students access to e-learning. Hotspots were provided by her district and given to students who reported that they did not have internet access. She looks forward to teaching her students in person once it is safe to do so.
“Online learning is devastating for my students with disabilities,” “Jessica Romano” emphasized when asked to describe her teaching experience during the pandemic. Jessica teaches sixth through twelfth grade at an intentionally diverse private school in Manhattan. Jessica is Cuban and Italian; the majority of her students are African-American and Latinx from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Harlem. The remainder of her students are white and come from more affluent areas. The majority of her white students have disabilities. For Jessica, e-learning is not successful for her students with disabilities because some of the kids do not have someone at home to help them log into Google Classroom. Additionally, some of her students face challenges with attentiveness and are struggling with the conversion of lessons to a digital format.
“Online learning destroys the concept of inclusion and I constantly feel like I am failing.”
Prior to school closures, teachers and students were not trained to effectively use video apps like Zoom for use in teaching. According to Jessica, “online learning destroys the concept of inclusion and I constantly feel like I am failing.” Jessica feels fortunate to have a co-teacher and they utilize the breakout features in Zoom to provide extra support. She recommends summer school being optional through an online enrichment program and providing additional digital support for students with disabilities.
Stephanie Stern is a K–5 teacher at Gaenslen, a public elementary school in Milwaukee, where students have been required to do distance learning since March 25. Gaenslen is a Title I school and 100 percent of her students are African-American. Her school began distributing Chromebooks in mid-April, but haven’t reached every student yet, including Stephanie’s. Stephanie commented that “I feel the educational gap is widening.” She has access to families through a Class Dojo system, however, she has not been able to communicate with 75 percent of her students’ families.
Class Dojo is a virtual communication outlet that schools use to keep students, teachers, and families together. Additionally, some parents of her students are older and may have challenges navigating an online system. Washington, D.C.
“Joshua Barnett” is a kindergarten teacher at a public charter school in Washington, D.C. More than 90 percent of his students are African-American. He is a male educator and the only Pacific Islander teacher at his school. He underscored that the biggest challenge is that a significant number of students are accessing their schoolwork through smartphones. A smartphone is not as functional as a laptop for school work, and students might have limited data plans. He said that his students are happy to connect online, but he is concerned that over a longer period of time their attentiveness may decline. He thinks summer school would be beneficial and supportive for his students.
Courtney Green is optimistic about e-learning being successful with parental, student, and community engagement, and ultimately with funding. She teaches at Drew Charter School in East Atlanta, where schools shut their doors in the last week of March. The school is unique in that the East Atlanta area faces controversies on its rapid gentrification and revitalization, and was recently featured in a PBS
documentary about those challenges. However, Drew aims to counter the trend of gentrification, and has a weighted lottery to achieve a mixed-income student body. The school aims to have a student body of at least 65 percent economically disadvantaged students.
Courtney is a second grade teacher, and she applauds the leadership of Drew for making e-learning accessible to all of its students. A survey was distributed to every family to learn about their needs, and the school’s leadership ensured that all students had access to the internet. The school referred families to resources that would help them access the internet, such as Xfinity charging approximately $10 a month. Teachers at Drew are developing nuanced ways for virtual teaching, such as hosting cooking classes. Courtney emphasizes that teachers have to be flexible and must empathize with parents, who are new to virtual learning. Regarding social promotion, Courtney commented that “it is unfair to retain students when they do not have the opportunity to demonstrate their growth.” The school is planning virtual summer school, and Courtney hopes e-learning continues to be effective and equitable.
The stories of these eleven teachers make it clear that access to online learning is not equal across the country. Ideally, the experiences of teachers, who are on the frontlines of distance learning during this pandemic, will directly inform the best path to closing the digital divide. And as it is increasingly likely that distance learning will be needed on an ongoing basis whenever the virus flares up again or has a second wave, here is what we need to do now to ensure that all kids have equal access to online distance learning.
How to Close The Digital Divide
The digital divide, also sometimes called the homework gap, existed long before the COVID 19 pandemic, but the outbreak of the virus has made the consequences of the divide more pronounced, as more than 55 million K–12 students had to abruptly finish their semester online. Furthermore, many of them might have to continue distance learning in the summer and fall as the deadly virus flares or has a second wave.
There has been an outpouring of private, philanthropic, and public support to close the digital divide in the face of COVID19. Here are just a few examples:
C-Spires, a Mississippi wireless company, opened its parking lot for free wifi access to Indianolo, Mississippi residents, as did the San Antonio Spurs with their AT&T Center parking lot.
In Detroit, private and philanthropic partners announced a plan to provide 50,000 laptops and internet connectivity to K–12 students. In California,
Google donated 4,000 laptops and hotspots for up to 100,000 kids in rural parts of the state. And in Los Angeles, major carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, Charter, and T-Mobile, announced low-cost services to low-income families with kids in school. The state of California announced a pilot project to park wifi-broadcasting
school buses in Sacramento neighborhoods for four to eight hours a day for kids to learn online. And public school districts across the country began sending kids home with Chromebooks as soon as COVID-19 shuttered their classrooms. At the federal level, via the CARES Act that Congress passed and which was signed into law on March 27,
school districts are allowed to use a portion of a new $13.5 billion Education Stabilization Fund for technology and distance learning. However, these funds are intended to support a long list of allowable expenses at a time when school districts are facing serious budget shortfalls.
These are admirable efforts and are obviously helping some kids; but, even taken together, millions of American K–12 students and their families are still offline when they need to be connected. And these disparate efforts are hardly a substitute for a national policy that ensures all households are connected to broadband internet, which is as critical a utility today as water and electricity when it comes to learning, health, and economic and social integration.
These disparate efforts are hardly a substitute for a national policy that ensures all households are connected to broadband internet, which is as critical a utility today as water and electricity when it comes to learning, health, and economic and social integration.
There are several key steps Congress should already have taken to bridge the digital divide, but the opportunity exists now to help low-income and rural communities that lack access to broadband internet and modern devices, like laptops or tablets. In its next COVID-19 emergency response package, Congress should do the following:
Appropriate a minimum of $2 billion for E-Rate, a popular program operated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that enables schools and libraries access to high-speed internet for learning. Congress should provide temporary authority to allow these emergency funds to be used by schools and libraries to purchase connectivity (hotspots, cable modems, or other mechanisms) and devices for students who need them at their homes.
Appropriate a minimum of $2 billion for emergency broadband services to help families that are in communities that are connected to the internet but cannot afford to purchase plans or to upgrade their plans to accommodate new needs, like distance learning.
This service will not only help students but also families that need to connect for telemedicine, emergency services, and job opportunities.
The total amount Congress should appropriate for both programs, however, must reflect the duration Congress anticipates the virus will disrupt normal operations. More money will be needed the longer distance learning is required.
Private, philanthropic, and local public efforts are all important; and the federal-level stimulus packages thus far have been a good start. But clearly we need a national response to a nationwide connectivity problem. Congress can help to close the digital divide on an emergency basis now, and it should take additional steps to ensure that, in the long term, all households across the country can access high-speed internet as easily as they do other essential services.
header photo: Bilingual teacher Maria Sanislo (R) explains a Google Chromebook to a family at KT Murphy Elementary School in Stamford, Connecticut