It’s widely understood that COVID-19 has been largely disastrous for schools, but the numbers behind that assertion are still pretty shocking.
There are about 1.1 million K-12 students in Washington state’s public schools, and an estimated 150,000-200,000 don’t have adequate, reliable internet access. The state needs 200,000 computers and tablets in order to provide every student with access to these essential electronics — and that’s after federal funds allowed Washington to buy 64,000 devices last fall.
Half of the kids in Washington are low-income, and 44% qualify for their schools’ free or reduced lunch. The digital divide hits these families hardest.
Numerous organizations and initiatives are trying to plug these holes for students who are coming up on the one-year mark since schools turned to remote teaching.
While those efforts target the here and now, on Tuesday, the Seattle-based Technology Alliance shared its plan for preparing for the next disaster that forces school doors to close. In a report called “Learning from Calamity,” the tech-boosting nonprofit organization spelled out five focal areas:
- Ensuring remote internet access to all students and teachers.
- Issuing a digital educational device to all students and teachers at the start of each school year.
- Prepping educators for remote instruction and helping districts create remote teaching plans for every school.
- Providing IT support for educators, students and families.
- Improving communication between schools and families, with specific plans for sharing information in the case of remote education.
Technology Alliance CEO Laura Ruderman acknowledged that it can be tough to consider a future catastrophe when our lives are still so upended by COVID, but said it’s essential to do so.
If we wait to act, she said, “we will forget the pain of this moment and it will seem less important to prepare for the next time. So we want to take this pressure point and use it to get some momentum to start preparing.
“And as you look at our report, so many of our recommendations that have us be better prepared for next time also have us better serve kids today — whether they are in school or out,” Ruderman said.
To create the document, the Technology Alliance convened a 50-person task force that’s a who’s-who of Northwest educators and tech leaders in the public, private and nonprofit spaces. It included DreamBox Learning CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson, Technology Access Foundation’s Trish Millines-Dzikoko, Washington’s Broadband Office Director Russ Elliott, and representatives from Microsoft, Amazon, Google and T-Mobile.
The group spent more than three months on the effort. The measures could also help when students aren’t able to get to school because of less disastrous causes like snow days.
“Children and families in my district and across the state are struggling under the weight of remote learning challenges — especially those in low-income households, Black and Brown families, and those who speak a language other than English. It’s incumbent upon all of us to address the deep inequities in access to high-quality learning for our children. We must close the digital divide,” said task force member Rep. Mia Gregerson, whose district is in south King County, in a statement.
The next steps, said Ruderman, are going to be the hardest. She’s hoping to work with either Gov. Jay Inslee’s office or the Superintendent’s Office to put together a blue ribbon commission that can create a plan for acting on the recommendations.
The report did not provide cost estimates for the different initiatives or suggest new funding sources. About half of the state’s $53.3 billion, two-year budget is spent on K-12 education, and this year lawmakers will need to allocate funds for COVID economic relief. Ruderman, who was once a state lawmaker and served on the committee that sets state budgets, was nonetheless hopeful.
“When the Legislature decides something is a priority, they figure out how to fund it,” she said.
While local technology and telecom companies have stepped up to help schools during the COVID crisis, Ruderman is not in favor of selectively hitting up the sector or its employees to donate devices or to bear taxes specifically targeting them.
“My hope is that the Legislature will take a holistic look at what needs funding and also that the various sectors of our business community will also take a look …. and that whatever sector we’re in, that we all will figure out how to bear our fair share of the collective load,” Ruderman said.