By Candice Richardson, The Seattle Medium
A year into the COVID-19 Pandemic has forced the country, and countries throughout the world, to adjust to a new way of life. It’s also shined a spotlight on issues that have been long ignored or misrepresented, such as systemic racism and educational justice, giving advocates perhaps an unprecedented opportunity to at last create real change.
One such advocacy group is the Technology Alliance, a state-wide, non-profit organization comprised of leaders from Washington’s technology-based businesses and research institutions. In the fall of 2020 when the pandemic closed school buildings and halted in-person learning, they formed The Remote Learning Task Force — which included a diverse group of leaders in education, business, and government, including former Washington State Governor, Gary Locke. The task force was split into five committees: Internet Connectivity, Learning Devices, Student Learning and Educator Readiness, Information Technology Support, and Family Communication.
While the task force was given the mission to explore issues that may arise from the pandemic, what they discovered were key shortfalls that weren’t created by the pandemic, but which have been exacerbated by it and needed to be addressed immediately. For instance, approximately 200,00 students, in both rural and low-income areas, lacked adequate or reliable internet access.
“I think it was shocking to everybody the number of families across the state who do not have reliable access to the internet,” says Laura Ruderman, CEO of Technology Alliance. “It was shocking to me to learn things like in low-income housing, even newer low-income housing, they’re not plumbed for internet…That to me was a stunning revelation in this day and age.”
The Remote Learning Task Force has released a report: “Learning From Calamity,” which further details this issue.
According to the report, more than 50% of children in Washington State live in low-income households and 44% of those children meet the federal poverty rate criteria. Only about 60% of lower-income students are currently able to log into online instruction during the pandemic compared to 90% of high-income students with more resources including reliable access. The report states succinctly that as of today more than 100,000 students have essentially missed out on an entire year of schooling and another 100,000 or more are only getting minimal schooling. These hundreds of thousands of students are mostly low-income students of color and are getting lower quality and less frequent schooling than their peers who are more well-off and largely white.
“I am often horrified at how quickly a rural community will figure itself out and will figure out how to help its own kids, while at the same time a larger to medium urban sized school district is so handicapped by policy and procedure that it can’t center students for whom they are failing,” says Sharonne Navas, the Co-founder & Executive Director of Equity in Education Coalition, who also co-chaired the Family Communications committee for the task force.
“I think the hard part about the equity around racial justice conversation is that we still have to mitigate how people feel about Black and Brown kids and the implicit bias that Black and Brown kids just can’t do as well,” Navas adds.
Internet Connectivity is only one part of the digital divide that has largely affected marginalized students, especially students of color.
According to the report, most states in the U.S. have a set goal of a one-to-one learning device to student ratio for home use. In Washington there is a shortage of 200,000 devices for students in order to meet that goal. The task force also wants to address the issue of understaffed or non-existent Informational Technology (IT) Support in small and rural schools. Then there’s the issue of preparing students and educators for a new education learning experience to counteract old teaching models that don’t translate well to remote learning environments.
“Teaching a virtual class ought to be qualitatively different than teaching an in-person class,” says Ruderman. “I was just talking to a school director whose district is going to open up some secondary classes fairly soon. And they’re going to do simulcasting. So, 40 percent of the kids will be in the room and 60 percent of the kids will be at home. And, while I think they’ll get better at it, I think that’s going to be a misery.”
Ruderman says one recommendation the task force is making regarding this new education learning experience is transitioning from summative assessments (i.e. mid-term and final exams) in order to gauge how well students are learning, to formative assessments which monitors students’ understanding of material and concepts on an ongoing basis and can be used by not just students to study more efficiently, but also by instructors to improve their teaching.
While this recommendation doesn’t strictly fall under the realm of technology, the task force knows that equitable access is only part of the story as it pertains to why some students are falling behind. This is why they’re also advocating for better family communication and engagement programs.
“Families and learning guardians (namely, designated individuals in a student’s life who assist them in learning, whether they be a relative, trusted neighbor, or community mentor) deserve certain guarantees as part of the learning experience. These include clear, ongoing venues to give feedback to their school and district; greater transparency around learning data and decision-making with respect to their child’s learning; and a clear complaint and resolution process,” states the “Learning from Calamity” report which also recommends that the state allocates for a family engagement coordinator in its prototypical schools funding model.
Traditionally, a family engagement coordinator is someone who can act as a bridge between a community and a school institution. They’re aware of outside resources that are available to families including community-based organizations and nonprofits, and can also advocate for families in crisis with school leadership.
Navas says she has met family resource professionals in both the Auburn and Highline school districts where they’ve been able to communicate with school leadership about an ICE raid across the street from the school building that affected students and mediate gang-related issues creeping up on campus respectively.
“The task force report makes it very clear that the personal link between the school building and the family is almost front and center to everything else,” says Navas. “We know that children can’t do their most excellent educational work if they’re hungry, if they’re stressed about losing housing, or even micro-aggressions of racism and ableism are traumatic. So how do we ensure that there’s someone at the school building that is equipped to help our students mitigate some of those things?”
“In order to be ready for the next extended closure, it’s not all about technology,” says Ruderman, who pointed out that the findings from the report don’t just apply to the current pandemic, but which can affect students who are experiencing severe weather in their area or other types of events that might result in school building closures.
While the majority of the recommendations the Remote Learning Task Force makes in their report may require additional funding or the reallocation of resources, such as providing every student with a digital learning device or shifting internet connectivity to Public Utilities Departments in some counties, Ruderman says there has been very little push-back to the task force’s findings.
“I have been pleasantly surprised by the support we’ve gotten so far from all quarters,” states Ruderman. “Even folks who I thought were not going to be friendly have been friendly.”
This could be due to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced communities across the country as whole to reconsider and reimagine standard practices and long accepted systems. It may also be due to the intentional diversity that went into the creation of the task force which was co-chaired by Marty Smith, the Chair Emeritus for Technology Alliance and Jessie Woolley-Wilson, President and CEO of DreamBox Learning.
This article is one of a series of articles produced by The Seattle Medium through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country.