By now the coronavirus, and the resulting fallout, has impacted just about every family in one way or another. Students are out of school, unemployment is rising and social distancing could take a psychological toll. But not everyone is equally affected.
Nearly 30 million low-income students rely on schools for breakfast or lunch, leaving schools scrambling to make new plans. Fourteen percent of households with school-age children do not have internet access, most of which earn less than $50,000 a year. And research indicates that students from low-income backgrounds could fall further behind their peers if learning stops too long and the country sinks into recession.
That makes the conversation about education equity essential. But the term doesn’t just mean equipping students with the same devices and broadband access. Schools also play an important role in boosting at-home learning among families.
“Think about resources that encourage parents to connect offline with their children,” suggests Nicol R. Howard, an assistant professor at the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Redlands in California. “Maybe it is about learning new technology, but it also could be about reading a book together.”
Last week, Howard was a guest on an hour-long, interactive webinar, Understanding the Impact of Coronavirus on K-12 Education, hosted by EdSurge and ISTE, our parent organization. It is a recurring weekly series on Fridays 11 a.m. PT / 2 p.m. ET. Joining her were Patricia J. Brown, a technology specialist for the Ladue School District in Missouri, and Matt Highfield, a teacher on special assignment focused on equity for the Beaverton School District in Oregon.
Listen to the audio below or check out the full video on YouTube. Below is a partial, condensed transcript below, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
How do you define equity, in the context of these school shutdowns?
Brown: When I think about digital equity, I think about ensuring that everyone has equal access and opportunity. That they have knowledge about what technology resources are available to them and the possibilities that they can achieve through technology, whether it’s creating or consuming. Access doesn’t necessarily mean handing students devices. It is more about what they can create with that technology.
Howard: I think intuitively people go to, “How do we get homework out there for kids right now while they’re not in school?” They might not realize that we’re actually creating a larger gap and additional inequities for students, especially when you’re trying to push greater use of digital tools that some students just simply don’t have access to. When I think of equity, I think about the needs of the home, the needs of the student and also the needs of our teachers. They may need support right now as well.
Is this a chance for schools to be doing something different in regards to equity?
Howard: Absolutely. I think of Corona-Norco Unified School District, for example, here in California. One of the first thoughts they had was, “How do we create a resource guide for parents? How do we think about parents and families at home and how do we push past the barriers that they’ve typically seen?”
We have seen some districts actually say, “Come check out a Chromebook. Or come check out a device or a hotspot because we know that there’s limited access.” This is our opportunity to support families and students in moving forward in their digital learning. At the same time, we recognize that parents might not know exactly which tools to use with students. But we have to remember that our students have been in class every day with their teachers. They just need the tool in their hand and the hotspot. I think our districts can help in that regard.
Matt, before the coronavirus crisis, did your district have a clear plan to support unconnected students?
Hiefield: Yes. We started a couple of years ago with a digital equity group to focus on this issue when we started seeing issues related to the digital divide. We applied for the Sprint 1Million grant and started purchasing extra hotspots for our students. We do have a homeless student population in our district. I don’t think everyone is connected, but we’re a lot better off than we were.
But access is maybe the first part of the digital divide. What Nicol and Patricia were hinting at is an opportunity gap. That relates somewhat to the preparation of our teachers. Some teachers are better prepared to offer things digitally than others. There are good ways and healthy ways to teach with technology, and then there are maybe not-so-great ways to teach with technology. We’re nurturing healthy ways to teach that can allow kids to connect and create and collaborate.
What’s the most important thing to be telling teachers at a time like this?
Brown: One thing that I saw on Facebook was a reminder to teachers about not assigning a lot of work right now—just make sure kids are okay. Connect with them virtually through video or by sending a picture. I was so happy today. My son’s kindergarten teacher sent an email to parents, but she also sent a picture of the classroom pet. I showed my son and he immediately jumped up and was excited to see his class pet, Otis. It was really exciting for him.
Is it enough to only be talking about connecting kids online, or is there more that we need to be considering for vulnerable populations?
Howard: I think connecting online, if you can of course, is nice. Use tools like Flipgrid and have students stay connected with classmates. But my research is rooted in parental involvement and finding ways in which we engage parents and families in the learning experience. Right now there’s a great opportunity for us to build community and encourage those moments of connectivity at home.
As a parent myself, it’s something that I enjoy doing. I enjoy family time. So think about resources that encourage parents to connect offline with their children. Give examples of ways in which they can learn alongside one another. Maybe it is about learning new technology, but it also could be about reading a book together. Teachers want to be there for parents. Let’s also encourage parents to connect in different ways with their children.
In the name of equity, some districts are not offering any remote instruction. The argument is that if online learning opportunities are not available to all students, they cannot make it available to some. Is that going too far?
Howard: I go back to something Rushton Hurley said: If your district isn’t allowing you to do anything, that creates a new inequity. Other districts will continue the learning in some way. I know it can be challenging to push within the district, but when possible, push to have the conversation at least: What are we doing to support our students or to offer access to learning in some way?
Another question came up about schools in areas where the students and families are scattered. I think this is where building community is important, because parents want to help right now. They want to help their own children and we want to help our communities. If we can find parents and pockets that can create hubs, I think that would be nice.
Have a parent pick up a collection of learning packets, or resources that are printed for the families in that area, and then have another parent do the same thing. That way the parents don’t have to drive far distances, if possible. I know right now we just went on lockdown, and so many people are not wanting to travel far. But I think learning should be considered an essential service. I think it’s okay for us to make a short drive if we have to, to get what we need to help our children.
Hiefield: We’ve found on some of our family nights, which we do for our underrepresented communities, that the families that live farthest away from school are the families who are least likely to attend, partly because of transportation issues and other challenges.
Is it equitable to create one-size-fits-all learning goals for all students where they do not all have equal opportunities?
Hiefield: We’re a standards-based district and we assess our learning targets. It might be that it’s not realistic to assess all targets. But it might be more realistic—depending on how long this goes on—to have teachers focus on a few targets and do that well. I don’t think anyone is proposing business as usual or that we’re just going to transfer everything from the classroom to replicate online. It’s important to think differently how we’re delivering education.
Any thoughts about specific tools that you will be using over the coming weeks?
Brown: If we’re creating Google Docs, we could share those out. A lot of our teachers were using Google Classroom already, so they’re just continuing to use it with their kids. If I were to name a couple that I think are really good, I’d say Seesaw, which is great for our little kids, Google Classroom, Flipgrid. All of those are ways just to connect.
Find the tool and the resource that works for your district. If you don’t have any mandated tools or resources, I think this could be a good time for you to kind of branch out and look at what might work. Other than that, I think just go with what you know at this moment and what you feel comfortable with. But at the same time, pull out of your comfort zone just a tad to meet the needs of your kids.