The Deepening Digital Divide

Lack of Devices, Connectivity and Support Hamper Remote Learning

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Student and teacher: A student at Eagle Academy Public Charter School works with a teacher. Photo: Karen Alston

As a working parent and candidate for Ward 8 State Board of Education, LaJoy Law (lajoylaw2020.com) is dependent on the Internet. To stay connected in her home, Law has for the last couple of years relied on a hotspot. However, when the pandemic moved both her daughter’s charter school and her job online, the need for a faster, more stable connection became urgent.

Law eventually secured affordable, high-speed access from Comcast’s Internet Essentials program (Internetessentials.com). She hopes her story encourages others to reach out for help.

“There’re some families where children were going to school on their phones,” Law said. “I know how hard it was to not have internet, because I was trying to figure it out.”

With public schools and charter schools opting for online instruction this fall due to COVID-19, the District’s digital divide is deepening across racial, economic and geographic fault lines. According to a new study conducted by the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League and UnidosUS, DC has the second largest gap nationally for high-speed internet access between white students and Black and Latino students. While 27 percent of Black students and 25 percent of Latino students lack home Internet, only five percent of their white peers are similarly disadvantaged.

In the District, the need for equitable device distribution, internet access and tech support has never been greater. Despite the difficulties, some schools and advocates have managed to begin to bridge the divide.

The Digital Divide
The District’s digital divide is greatest in Wards 5, 7 and 8, where resident median household income is lowest. These wards are also home to most of the District’s Black residents, many of whom lack broadband internet access, internet-enabled devices and digital literacy resources. According to the Washington Teachers’ Union (wtulocal6.net), up to a quarter of public school students didn’t have a device or WiFi by the end of the school year. DC Public Schools (DCPS) pledged to provide devices for students who do not have them for the 2020-2021 school year.

A student at Eagle Academy Public Charter School connects to class with an iPad, which the school distributes to all students. Photo: Karen Alston

The District’s current education budget is too small to supply every DCPS student with a device, according to Ward 7 State Board of Education Candidate Eboni-Rose Thompson (ebonirosedc.com). While a student may have access to a device, it may be shared with siblings, she points out. Even if there is access to a device, it may be unsuitable for attending virtual classes or completing homework.

“The city is assuming every charter school is one that’s giving away laptops,” Thompson said. “That’s not true.”

In addition, District student access to the internet varies widely. According to a report released by All4Ed (all4ed.org), 20,278 children lack high-speed home Internet in DC, and 77 percent of those students were Black.

Even if a student has a device and broadband access, they and their parents may run into technical issues. For parents of young children, virtual learning often means helping their children navigate not just content, but digital platforms. This became routine for parent Grace Hu, who leads the Digital Equity in DC Education (w6pspo.org) coalition, and her elementary school daughter.

“I had to be involved to help her access documents and then upload her schoolwork,” Hu said. “That’s just really hard as a working parent.” Some parents may not have the technical skills to help, or may not be English speakers which can making helping their child very difficult if not impossible.

Schools Doing it Right
Despite the myriad of problems, some schools and community members have successfully bridged the digital divide. They serve as models for others facing technology challenges in the era of virtual learning.

Eagle Academy Public Charter School (eagleacademypcs.org) serves children in grades pre-K to third at two campuses. Since 2012, the school has issued an iPad to each student for classroom use loaded with educational software and age appropriate content, Chief Marketing Officer Karen Alston said. Like most schools have since March 2020, Eagle Academy has navigated an uncharted educational landscape. But years spent bridging the digital divide placed the school “ahead of the curve,” Alston said.

Eagle has “always been a high-tech school,” said Joe Smith, Eagle Academy’s Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Over 80 percent of its students were completely set up for online instruction within the first week of the switch to remote learning last spring. This relatively smooth transition was built on a strong technological foundation and extensive device distribution.

iPads are effective for both teacher-guided learning and independent exploration, Smith said. Students often come upon news articles or math websites on their own. From home, teachers can assess and support students through the same platforms utilized in a classroom environment: Fast ForWord, a reading intervention software; Zearn, a digital and hands-on math tool; and short lessons from Khan Academy, among other programs, Eagle Academy Director of Education Sabrina O’Gilvie said.

At Eagle, speech therapists, physical therapists, reading specialists and even art teachers easily shifted their services online.

Guaranteed Internet access for parents and students supported the school’s success. For years, Eagle Academy has assisted families in securing in-home hotspots. As the school year approaches, the institution has worked to establish socially distant, Internet-enabled spaces for students to complete work. Additionally, five full-time tech support employees ensure the school’s robust tech network runs smoothly.

Upon graduation, Eagle gifts every third grader an iPad. “When they go on to fourth grade, they are computer fluent,” Smith said. “They know the programs and where to go to help them grow.”

“The children take to technology,” Smith said, “like ducks to water.”

Eagle Academy has tackled the problems of the digital divide head on: device provisioning, broadband access, parental and student technical support and curricular integration. Doing so has allowed students to continue learning amid the unprecedented educational challenges of the pandemic — a feat that has not been universally achieved in other District schools.

Supporting Students and Parents
At a July 27 town hall, DCPS Office of Data Systems & Strategy Chief Colin Taylor promised to offer parents and students tech support through a dedicated call center.

The Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) is responsible overall for the District’s technology initiatives. According to Chief Lindsey Parker, OCTO (octo.dc.gov) wants to unite organizations “across the public, private and non-profit sectors” working to increase technology access and support. “

“We want to bring these folks together around a singular focus on digital equity to give DC residents a fair shot,” Parker said. OCTO is “currently looking for federal dollars, private grant opportunities, and philanthropic funds,” she added.

Anticipating that these efforts might prove inadequate, former OCTO Program Manager John Capozzi decided to create a non-profit, youth-led community help desk. Intended for students, families and senior citizens, DC Community Help Desk (DCCHD) also connects DC youth to employment opportunities.

“If you want us to help you, describe your problem, we’ll give it a try and go from there,” Capozzi said.

The DCCHD can be reached by calling 202-788-7201 between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Email assistance is also available at [email protected] or by completing a web form at https://onramps-dc.org.

But with the sheer number of students learning virtually, can all of these efforts provide District students with a bridge to cross the digital divide?

Looking Forward
Thompson, the DC State Board Ward 7 candidate, believes the hurdles to tech equity are largely monetary.

“I am really concerned we have a missed opportunity in this budget to address some of those issues,” Thompson said. “Unlike a lot of social ills where it takes a lot of policy and changing hearts and minds, the digital divide can actually be solved with dollars. And we have not yet chosen to make that investment.”

For now, parents, even those with more access to devices and tech support, face tough choices.

Law, the Ward 8 Education Board candidate, is choosing to continue remote learning for her daughter, who is especially vulnerable to COVID-19. She encourages school districts to “meet families where they are” and pursue creative solutions to support those in a variety of situations.

With “grace and compassion,” Law hopes the current challenges will push leaders to work toward closing the digital divide.

“It’s time we come up with creative solutions about what we should do,” Law said. “We don’t have to go back to the way things were. We can create a new normal.”

Eva Herscowitz is a journalism student at Northwestern University currently interning with the Hill Rag. She writes for Northwestern’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern. You can reach her at [email protected]