In December, Democratic Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said his state was the first in the country to have a laptop for every elementary and high school student who needed it for distance learning.
This moment was significant, and not just because state education commissioner Miguel Cardona was set to be appointed by President Joe Biden to replace Betsy DeVos as education secretary. in Washington. Record marveled at how quickly its students and classes have made the switch to online learning. A former Lamont collaborator compared the Connecticut benchmark to nailing the last golden tip into the transcontinental railroad.
Yet the Connecticut experience in the months that followed shows how bridging the digital divide is more nuanced than just connecting kids to Chromebooks.
Thousands of Connecticut students have not logged into distance learning classes, even after the state allocated tens of millions of dollars in federal aid to its ambitious distance learning program. Many families have not taken advantage of the subsidized Internet. It is still unclear how many students originally needed connections, the state’s director of education technology said, and it is also unclear how many children are still disconnected from the school. distance learning today.
“We have this misconception that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ said Doug Casey, executive director of the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology.
“The big advantage for us,” Casey said, “is that there is so much more to all of this distance and blended learning than just a connection and a device. These are table issues. It won’t lead you to success any more than every kid who gets a textbook makes sure they all get A’s. ”
Researchers estimate up to 17 million school-aged children could not afford or access a home device or internet connection during the pandemic. The problem has hit southern and more rural states most severely, and disproportionately low-income and minority students. Washington first responded in March 2020 by sending states and schools tens of billions of dollars that they could use to purchase needed technology.
Connecticut’s plan to connect needy students with devices and connections had a few inherent benefits. Lamont is a former telecoms executive. A non-profit company linked to the state’s wealthiest couple, billionaire philanthropists Barbara and Ray Dalio, bought 60,000 laptops for high school students when the pandemic began. Moreover, officials dedicated to solving the problem have not faced some of the obstacles that plague rural states or large urban districts.
In July, the Lamont administration announced it would spend $ 43.5 million in federal aid to buy tens of thousands of additional laptops and a year of home internet connections for students who needed them. . Then came the hard part.
Connecticut’s first challenge was to measure the scope of the problem. Without a definitive map showing where children were logged in or out of remote classrooms, authorities relied on school districts to estimate the number of students needing Windows laptops, Google Chromebooks, and web access.
Ordering around 80,000 devices and 13,000 mobile hotspots was fairly straightforward. Sorting out about 40,000 wired broadband connections was another beast.
Finding the right bond for a student depends not only on where their family lives, but the circumstances in which they live. A swarm of companies offer access in a patchwork format that varies from region to region. This assumes that people live in places with an infrastructure for wired connections or reliable cellular coverage.
“It’s not like going to Dell and just cutting a check for them,” said Nick Simmons, the former director of strategic initiatives at Lamont who was recently appointed to a reopening position at a leading federal school. under Cardona.
Yet efforts like those in Connecticut have filled some of the homework gap in the country. The majority of households nationwide report that their children’s school or district provided devices for educational purposes, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. A recent estimate from the Boston Consulting Group found that states had closed up to 60% of the K-12 “device divide” by December, and up to 40% of the “connectivity divide,” with assistance from federal and private sector funding.
Yet the advisory group estimated that as many as 12 million K-12 students were still ‘under-connected’ in the United States by 2021 due to issues such as poor map data. broadband, infrastructure and supply chain problems, as well as insufficient funding. Tens of billions of dollars in new spending is needed to permanently close the gap, BCG said.
Even when all the schoolchildren can return to class, the connectivity problem will not go away. The pandemic has changed a lot in teaching and learning in America, including integrating online tools, homework and hybrid communications more deeply into the country’s education system. Thus, reducing the gap between homework will remain a national priority.
Two new multi-billion dollar federal programs now promise to help low-income families pay their Internet bills and connect more students to the Web at home. Biden’s initial $ 2 trillion infrastructure proposal includes a $ 100 billion business case for extended broadband.
But in the long run, experts say more connections won’t erase the problem. A 40-page report from the Connecticut Educational Technology Commission, released in February after the state asked schools to identify barriers to bringing families online, outlined some of the reasons for this.
Many Connecticut districts have assumed distance learning will be predominant this year, but schools have been able to provide in-person instruction at higher rates than expected. This has led to less demand for home broadband.
Some families did not want to share their personal information with cable companies, encountered language barriers, or were concerned about having to pay hidden costs or commitments. Carriers sometimes unduly delayed access for families who had overdue balances on their bills. Many families have not been connected due to housing instability. Others struggled with the limited capacity of a single cable connection.
These factors, along with a range of related concerns, meant that many students just weren’t logging on.
Lamont’s administration is now backing a state broadband review law that would require new, updated broadband availability maps and allow cities to build their own municipal networks.
His administration now devotes nearly $ 11 million in stimulus funding to door-to-door activities in 15 school districts. The effort is aimed at getting students struggling with absenteeism and disengagement to return to class, help them register for the summer apprenticeship, and prepare for the 2021-2022 academic term. The state also hopes the home visiting program will help authorities connect families with behavioral or mental health services and learn more about their access to child care services and technology.
“We just don’t have the social service resources to truly engage with these families and children who are disengaged from the school community,” Record said. “School counselors, social workers and school psychologists in my school district put in a tremendous amount of work and hours, but there aren’t enough of them. This is where I see where the plan kind of fell apart.
Something as simple as more face-to-face contact could help set the new standard for school, in a world where some educators and tech experts aspire to transform old-school classrooms. into rich environments for students – whether they are in the building. or not.
“It could mean setting up a digital school or a remote school,” said Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Alexandra Estrella. “It may mean that elements of it are infused into our day-to-day practices within our own infrastructure, to avoid loss of learning for things that may not be related to Covid.”
That could mean that someday classes will work seamlessly between online and physical environments, with campus technology coordinators helping families solve problems. This could include school buildings with Wi-Fi equipment strong enough to transmit connections to surrounding neighborhoods so that entire families can apply for jobs and access telehealth services, or school buses that serve as hotspots. access to students during their daily trips.
But if Record had a magic wand, she would start by hiring humans.
“This is what I think is missing in the current model of what is happening and what has happened in the past,” she said. “We need more people to engage with families more often, and we just don’t have the capacity to do that right now.”