Betty Hunter and her rising eighth grader had a challenging spring of distance learning.
On one hand, Hunter felt “blessed” that her son, Angel, received at least some form of live instruction each day from his teachers at the Mary L. Booker Leadership Academy, the San Francisco charter school he attended this spring. Educators also made themselves available through office hours, another plus.
Then there were the struggles. Hunter was forced to balance her day job and serve as her son’s de facto teacher. Angel, already behind his grade level in math, had trouble with multiplication and slid further. Special education services were elusive. Poor internet connectivity in the public housing development where they live sometimes meant missing out on virtual lessons.
As schools weigh daunting changes to physically reopen, they also are under pressure to improve the quality and access to distance learning — which this spring meant frequent engagement opportunities for some students, and less so for several others.
Either in response to local outbreaks, out of necessity to support hybrid scheduling, or because of parents’ concerns, some form of distance learning is likely to remain part of how California schools educate students like Angel.
The budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom makes clear the state expects schools to hold in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible” this fall. Education leaders and a group of pediatricians want students to return to school, saying a spring away from classrooms resulted in widespread learning loss most acute in disadvantaged students.
Plans for physically reopening, however, remain uncertain for most California schools. Some parents and teachers at high risk are apprehensive about a return to campuses. The state’s rapidly changing public-health picture has made it harder to plan for reopenings in August and early September. Despite a no-cuts education budget, there remain extraordinary costs to deal with the complex logistics of creating socially distant schools that mitigate the risk of coronavirus spread.
The challenges and costs for ensuring better distance learning opportunities are also steep. State schools chief Tony Thurmond has said it would cost the state billions of dollars to equip all 6 million students with computers and Wi-Fi hotspots, and improve internet connectivity across the state. New standards for distance learning approved by the governor and state legislators aim to elevate the quality of distance learning and interaction students have with their teachers.
Even though this spring had its shortcomings, Hunter plans to keep her son home when he begins eighth grade at San Francisco Unified’s Denman Middle School — wary that a return to campus could mean risking potential coronavirus exposure for her son and his immunocompromised grandparents.
Hunter and other parents with the Innovate Public Schools nonprofit are lobbying the district to provide at least two hours of live instruction a day, prioritizing access to devices and internet for low-income students, and creating a plan with parents to address students’ “COVID slide.”
“My son is already behind,” Hunter said. “It’s scary. If we don’t create a plan (for distance learning) now, over the summer, then students will only continue to fall further and further behind.”
An enormous digital divide
When schools unexpectedly closed their doors en masse in mid-March, one of the most immediate hurdles reconnecting students with their instructors was the state’s yawning digital divide.
Across the state, hundreds of thousands of families lacked internet access or the necessary technology for online learning, hampering their chances to participate. Though many districts bulk purchased computers this spring, the digital gap remains huge.
As of mid-June, schools in California reported needing 765,000 devices and 416,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, according to estimates provided by the California Department of Education. The state had distributed 65,000 devices and 100,000 hot spots, a fraction of the total need.
Thousands of schools across California say they need more computers and Wi-Fi hotspots for their students and teachers, though responses from a state survey show higher need in Central Valley communities, as well as widespread demand for reliable internet that extends to students in rural and urban schools.
In Los Angeles, approximately 250,000 households with school-age children did not have a computer or broadband internet for online learning this spring, according to a policy brief by the University of Southern California. Connectivity needs were strongly tied to families’ income levels, with poorer households more likely to be digitally shut out.
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The pandemic highlighted the gaps in infrastructure among California’s school districts that allowed some local systems move to distance learning more nimbly than schools that did not have enough computers and hotspots to immediately distribute to students. Though the amount of funding for school infrastructure differs across local districts, several local leaders whose schools were prepared with technology said it was the result of years of thoughtful decision-making. Across the state, many households either can’t afford high-speed internet or live in areas of the state where connectivity is unreliable.
Bridging California’s digital divide, which Thurmond has described as “embarrassing,” comes with steep price tags, though state leaders have urged schools to ensure students have the necessary technology for the fall as part of their reopening plans.
It would cost $500 million to equip all students with technology for distance learning, and $6 billion to improve broadband access across California, according to Thurmond. Since April, he has called on technology companies and philanthropies to donate to the cause, and the state has pressured providers such as Verizon to offer affordable internet access for low-income families.
“While we have made good progress in our efforts to close the digital divide, hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable students and families still lack access to the basic tools needed to connect to their learning,” Thurmond said. “In today’s world, technology is as important as electricity.”