Public Schools Confront Digital Equity As Pandemic Forces Remote Learning

Laptops to be distributed to students being prepped at Durham's Riverside High School. (Photo courtesy of Susie Post-Rust)

When schools closed due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, students lost everyday access to their friends and the prior world as they knew it. But a disturbingly large number also lost access to their education, which was then moved entirely online and thus made unattainable for the many students who did not have consistent access to computers or reliable, high-speed internet service. 

The Durham Public Schools Foundation has made a move to address these inequities by launching a campaign to raise $1.5 million in private dollars to level the educational playing field for all students learning remotely.

This campaign goes far beyond the 20,000 laptops that Durham Public Schools secured for students going into the 2020-21 school year to combat inequity, said Katie Spencer Wright, DPSF’s communications manager.

“Having a device is really just the beginning,” Spencer Wright said. “It is definitely a first step, but there are all these other steps.”

While making sure every student has a laptop is an important step, other digital accessibility hurdles must also be cleared. (Photo by Susie Post-Rust)

Some students are still lacking internet connectivity and family member support, which the campaign seeks to address. The campaign also hopes to finance rapid professional development for teachers, many of whom were not necessarily prepared for the new and different skillset of conducting class over Zoom.

With much of the school system’s money from the state and federal government being restricted due to budget woes caused in part by the pandemic, the DPSF hopes to address the lacking areas. One initiative is to make Durham County’s HOPE learning centers available free of charge for students who need these productive environments through partnerships with organizations like the YMCA. For at least 11 weeks, 538 students are expected to access these centers.

DPSF has raised $851,000 from 615 donors since the campaign launched in June.

Elsewhere in the Triangle, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also saw the digital divide affect students learning remotely. But perhaps the district was better prepared than others. 

Before the novel coronavirus ever made a mark on education, the district had launched the 1:1 Student Chromebook Program, providing computers and smart devices to all students, said Jeff Nash, the district’s executive director of community relations. When the schools switched over to remote learning, the district provided hotspots to all students who, when surveyed, said they needed it.

But even with hotspots, some students were left without reliable phone signals, still derailing their remote learning. This is one area where CHCCS is working with phone providers to see if they can set up better service in specific neighborhoods, Nash said. 

CHCCS also began a partnership with the YMCA to set up learning centers where students can have a structured, socially distanced place to attend class. The pilot sites serve around 100 students altogether, Nash said.

While some neighborhoods have a more difficult time in terms of student accessibility, the family dynamic can also play a huge role when it comes to educational equity in the time of Covid-19.

“It’s a big difference if you run into an accessibility issue and you have a parent who can help you out versus your neighbor who does not,” Nash said. “Obviously one child clearly is going to have a better experience than the other.”

Wake County’s issues especially “large”

The Wake County School System had a unique challenge as it is the 16th largest school district in the country with around 160,000 students. There are still 10,000 Chromebook devices that need to be distributed to students who requested them, said WakeEd Partnership President Keith Poston.

Like the other counties, Wake has partnered with community organizations like the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club through the FAST Initiative, providing learning centers to students who would like a socially distanced environment with supervisors to keep them on track while offering food and breaks for physical activity. The average cost per week is $100, Poston said, but full or partial scholarships are available to students in need.

The so-called “summer slide,” or learning loss for students without enrichment programs over the summer, has always been an issue of educational equity, DPSF’s Spencer Wright said. She said the pandemic’s remote-learning digital divide would only exacerbate learning gaps that were already present.

WakeEd Partnership’s Poston agrees that the digital divide impacted students far before the pandemic and will likely continue to be an issue as even when students return to school.

“Those were creating academic challenges for low-income students before,” Poston said. “But once they all got pushed in all-virtual, it became almost an overnight crisis. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t do homework—they couldn’t do school.”

Around 63 percent of Durham Public Schools students rely on free and reduced lunch access during a typical school year. The pandemic’s remote-learning crisis has the potential to sink high school graduation rates and hurt Durham’s economy at large without the campaign’s help, Spencer Wright said.

Every crisis an opportunity

Still, Spencer Wright said there is an opportunity to push forward digital equity.

“We’re not only sort of patching up this hole that’s been ripped open,” Spencer Wright said. “We’re also trying to accelerate this long-overdue response. We have the opportunity to really move our students and our district to the next level of what’s possible around digital learning.”

As education is an issue that affects larger-scale communities and the economy, all three school districts are looking for community support.

“This is a community-wide challenge,” Poston said. “We need the community’s support. We all benefit.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s Nash said the digital divide is just one component of a larger issue of educational equity, one he says that CHCCS is also committed to work on.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do, and so that’s the same when you’re talking about the technology divide or any other divide,” Nash said. “There are gaps and we have them, whether it’s between races or whether it’s between socio-economic groups or any neighborhood. However you measure it, if there are gaps, we’ve got work to do.”

About Suzanne Blake 362 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.