Future of Learning: ‘No child left offline’

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Javeria Salman

By Javeria Salman
 
More than a year after the pandemic forced students everywhere into an often haphazard remote learning experience, new data shows that many children from low-income families still lack the basic essentials to get online from home.
 
While remote learning may be ending in most places across the country, many students will continue to struggle to complete many lessons and assignments because they lack adequate internet service and access to devices at home — a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “homework gap.”
 
During a forum hosted by public policy think tank New America to discuss this new data, Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting FCC Chairwoman, called this lack of access “an especially cruel” part of the digital divide that existed long before the pandemic.
 
Despite various efforts by states and school districts to close the gap during the past year, 15 percent of children from families with incomes below the national median of $75,000 a year are still without fast and reliable home internet access, according to a new report from New America and Rutgers University. Twelve percent of families still have no computer at home.
 
“We need to look at this like any other utility,” said Christopher Rush, the director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, during the forum. “Any place that a kid lives in this country, any place that a family is in this country needs to have high-speed access.”
 
There are some positive findings in the survey. Since 2015, when the report’s authors, Victoria Rideout, president of VJR Consulting, and Vikki Katz, an associate professor at Rutgers University, first studied the issue, access to non dial-up home internet service among low-income families with children ages 6 to 13 has increased from 64 percent to 84 percent.
 
What is alarming for advocates and policy-makers, is that even for families that do have broadband internet access at home, the survey found that most are “under-connected,” or lacking devices or service that are sufficient and reliable enough for remote learning. Fifty-six percent of families said their internet was too slow to properly participate in online learning. The families most likely to lack sufficient internet bandwidth and devices were Black and Hispanic, and families living below the federal poverty line. Sixty-five percent of families said their children couldn’t fully participate in remote learning because they lacked access to a computer or internet.
 
“The really sobering news is that even with our success and shrinking the number of Americans who are unconnected, we still have a really big problem with people who are under-connected,” said Rosenworcel during the forum.
 
The authors also found that between 2015 and 2021, the proportion of lower-income families who are under-connected has hardly changed. Whether students are learning remotely or in-person, Rosenworcel said addressing the homework gap — a term that she coined — is needed now more than ever. 
 
“We have to recognize that as we exit this pandemic, education has changed,” Rosenworcel added. “It has been digitized. There are new ways of teaching, learning, researching, and collaborating that we will take with us out of this period. We need to ensure that every student gets the connectivity they need to thrive so no child is left offline.”
 
An additional $7.17 billion, available through the FCC’s new emergency connectivity fund, will go toward the purchase of laptops, tablets, WiFi, hotspots, modems, routers, and broadband connections “for off-campus use to serve the unmet needs of students, school staff, and library patrons.” The money, which schools and libraries could start applying for on June 29, “will help close the homework gap,” Rosenworcel said.
 
The New America/Rutgers survey, which was conducted by telephone to reach unconnected and under-connected families during the pandemic, is a nationally representative sample of 1,000 parents of children ages 3 to13. The report also excerpted discussions conducted with three dozen lower-income parents in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and in Santa Clara County in California.
 
The report includes insights on what parents say they have learned about their children’s education over the past year and what they are most concerned about for the next school year. Not only has parent involvement in their children’s education increased, 62 percent say they now know more about what their child is learning in school than they did prior to the pandemic.
 
However, while parents are concerned about what their children didn’t learn during the pandemic, half of the parents whose children will be entering first grade or higher said the most important priority in the fall is their child’s social and emotional well-being.
 
During the forum’s panel discussion on insights from parents, families, and local initiatives (a discussion I moderated), Janice Meyers, a grandmother and great-grandmother raising five children in Pittsburg, said her 5-year-old grandson couldn’t attend kindergarten because Meyers lacked access to services that would have made it possible to enroll him last year.
 
Meyers said while she’s worried that her grandson might now be a year behind his peers, it’s “the lack of connectedness with their peers” and her kids’ mental health that really concerns her. 
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The Shortlist 
  1. Application window for funds to close homework gap now open. As mentioned above, the application window for the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, opened yesterday. The ECF program is meant to help schools and libraries provide students with access to broadband and devices during the Covid-19 emergency period. According to the FCC, this is “largest single effort” in the nation’s history to close the homework gap. Schools and libraries that are already eligible under the FCC’s E-Rate Program, and Tribal libraries eligible under the Library Services and Technology Act, can apply for funding. This program is different from E-Rate, in that schools and libraries can use the funding to serve students, school staff and library patrons who are off-campus. The application window will close on August 13. Households struggling to afford internet service can separately apply through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

  2. Parents think influx of federal funding is an opportunity for change. A national survey reveals parents’ current top priorities for K-12 education. Of 2,700 parents surveyed, 40 percent said they were “very concerned” about loss of learning during the pandemic. Among parents expressing concern, 62 percent of white parents indicated they believe their children’s school is doing a good job; in contrast, 50 percent of parents of color reported that they don’t think their school is doing a good job of addressing lost learning time. The survey also found that a majority of parents view the influx of dollars in federal funding as a moment to make “bold changes” in public education. Parents picked academic recovery, technology, mental health and teacher support as areas they think will be “potentially effective” for “policy prescriptions.” The Walton Family Foundation funded the survey, which polled parents from April 2-11, 2021.

  3. How schools can make best use of federal funding. FutureEd, an independent think tank, has released a Covid Relief Playbook to help states and schools figure out how to spend funds from the American Rescue Plan Act’s unprecedented infusion of federal dollars into education. The playbook’s compilation of 18 evidence-based practices that have improved “instructional quality, school climate, student attendance, and academic achievement” provides education officials with potential ideas on how to make best use of the funding. The ARPA requires districts and states to spend a portion of the money received on such evidence-based practices. FutureEd also released a spreadsheet of plans submitted to the 34 state educational agencies, detailing how they intend to spend a portion of their federal dollars “prioritizing for learning recovery.”
More on the Future of Learning 
Virtual school opens a divide that U.S. parents fill with fury,” Bloomberg
 
Efforts to restrict teaching about racism and bias have multiplied across the U.S.,” Chalkbeat
 
What a bipartisan infrastructure agreement between Biden, senators would mean for schools,” EdWeek
 
A revolution in learning for a post-pandemic world,” WGBH
 
Climate change threatens America’s ragged school infrastructure,” The Hechinger Report
 
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