A quarter-century ago, researchers first pointed to a troubling fact: A “digital divide” was developing between those with access to technology and those without, leaving the latter without the rich source of information others could use to grow and prosper.
Education policymakers and educators watched the digital divide warily, recognizing students without access to computers, the internet and other technology platforms were at risk of falling behind.
Last month, as schools shuttered in response to the COVID-19 crisis, some were equipped to shift quickly to online learning. Districts where students had take-home laptops or tablets immediately connected with teachers via video conferencing and chat rooms. We saw students conducting science experiments from online lessons, sharing home-produced artwork and writing thank-you essays to health care workers.
But those aware of the digital divide noticed something else. Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at New America, a Washington-based think tank, shared his concerns in a series of Twitter posts:
“Now that Virginia has officially closed public schools for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year, with other states sure to follow, it's worth taking stock of what an enormous challenge this will be for educational equity,” wrote Carey, who once served as an adviser to Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon. “College-educated white-collar parents who can telework are home with their kids and can provide individualized instruction. ... They also have access to reliable high-speed Internet if and when districts are able to ramp up instruction from a distance in the coming weeks. They also have comfortable housing in which this education can occur. ... Parents who have to leave home to work, by contrast, will need to patch together ad hoc child care that may change day-to-day. ... Their only Internet access might be a cell phone. They're more likely to live in an underfunded school district that lacks the resources to manage an abrupt, never-before-tried emergency transition to distance education.”
Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, leads one of those underfunded school districts and is painfully aware of the educational disparities laid bare by the pandemic. Sending computers home with 30,000 students or expecting them to have online access isn't a simple matter. Fort Wayne Community Schools' complex makeup is a factor. Competing demands from political leaders are another. So, too, are district administrators' views of electronic learning, or e-learning.
“What was so frustrating for me when this whole conversation about e-learning started years ago is that it wasn't really to improve education,” Robinson said in a phone interview from her home. “It was a way to get around the 180 days that you have to have. The state, in its infinite wisdom, and suburban districts, mainly, that had the resources or had kids who had technology at home already, figured out a way that they could tie the teachers and technology and count it as (an instructional day).
“People have become enamored with the concept of e-learning without having a clue what that actually means,” she said. “When people talk about e-learning, they get so focused on the devices as opposed to the actual teaching methods being used. The pandemic has just exacerbated what was already an equity issue anyway.”
Robinson said students in the district don't lack access to technology in the classroom. There are one-to-one laptops available to all high school students in the classroom, and computers were sent home last month with seniors lacking credits toward graduation. New Tech students at Wayne High School have long had take-home computers.
“Over the years we have been building up and making sure every child has access to technology in the classroom,” Robinson said. “We also have to spend a lot of time making sure the teachers know what to do with it. It's not just hooking kids to a computer to play games on.”
Computers are simply a tool, she said. The foundation for learning requires more.
“A skilled teacher can use technology in the classroom or even if the child is at home to continue or to accelerate learning,” Robinson said. “I believe learning starts with the relationship between the teacher and the student.”
The past week was spring break for the district. Next week, each teacher will have a website on the PowerSchool platform so parents can connect. Teachers will have virtual office hours at least three times a week.
“Some of my parents are saying to me, 'Well, just give us packets,' ” Robinson said. “Well, that goes against everything we've been working toward the last five to six years with this whole conversation around deep learning. Packets are not cutting-edge instruction, and just taking worksheets and putting them (online) goes against everything that philosophically I believe about quality education for kids.
“Right now, this whole conversation about whether Fort Wayne is an e-learning district or not is: 'I want what other people have,' but if you listen to people who have e-learning, it's not the panacea,” she said. “What this pandemic has made so blatantly obvious to everyone is the value of what happens every day in the classroom ... the value of quality instruction and teachers.”
As FWCS has worked to incorporate technology effectively, it has been hampered by accountability demands. Robinson, who retires at the end of June after nearly 47 years in the district, said the state's “almost-manic focus” on accountability, with ever-changing standardized test requirements, school and district letter grades and more, has been demoralizing.
“Most of my time is spent trying to fulfill some requirement made up by people who don't even visit schools,” she said. “We've had to get federal grants to train our administrators and teachers, to buy materials and supplies because there are a lot of demands and the (state) funding doesn't match.”
Robinson pointed to the disconnect between educational equity and accountability. While the district works to ensure every student in every school is afforded the opportunity and resources they need and deserve, efforts are “absolutely undermined” by accountability demands, she said.
“I think this pandemic has been so emotionally overwhelming for all of us that I'm hoping going forward we can have conversations around how we can support and help each other as opposed to the judging and weighing and measuring of things that don't matter,” Robinson said. “When you say that you won't have school for three or four months, and your responsibility is to educate kids, does it matter if you give ILEARN, or should you be focused on how do we get technology where it belongs? How do we help communities get broadband where it is needed? How do I support teachers?”
Signs of hope
Robinson is hopeful, however, that things will change for the better in the wake of the pandemic, even as she sees a second wave of social-distancing restrictions ahead.
“Across the country and state, I think governors and legislators are starting to see it's not business as usual,” she said. “What's reassuring is the number of legislators who have called or sent me an email or contacted (Chief Financial Officer Kathy Friend) to ask what do we need or how can they help.”
“The state has been really, really good about flexibilities around how we use funds,” she said. “We got some information last week about some potential additional (federal) funds that might become available. And they've relaxed how we can spend those funds. The biggest issue for us becomes – OK, we can have the instruments; we can have the technology. But then what do you do when homes don't have internet and the kids can't go to the library? ... Are there hotspots? How do you get kids access?
“Those are all things that you can't just throw your hands up and say, 'Well, I can't do anything about it,' ” she said. “This has shown us that everybody better figure out how to do something about it.”
With Gov. Eric Holcomb's order last week for schools to remain closed through the end of the academic year, Fort Wayne schools will be required to offer remote learning. The state should be prepared to assist the urban district and others across the state, including small rural districts, meet those requirements.
Kevin Carey, the education policy analyst, suggests the same.
“It's incumbent on policymakers and school officials to ensure that students who are most vulnerable to educational disruption get the additional resources they need in the next few months,” he wrote.
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.