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Digital Inclusion in a Virtual School World

Bowling Green, Ky. (October 5, 2020) -Having the good fortune of working for Connected Nation over the past 15 years, I’ve witnessed the full spectrum of what broadband looks like throughout the United States. Communities with gigabit service, communities that are a few hollers, corn rows or cacti from any connection at all, and everything in between. The lack of access to broadband, devices, and the ability to use these technologies has never been more apparent than it is in our current COVID-19 world.

This spring, our family — along with most American families — was thrust into virtual learning. My two elementary-aged daughters and my wife, who teaches first grade, somehow flipped a switch and started learning and teaching in a virtual environment. As a family, we’re fortunate to have a number of devices to use, as well as a quality internet connection, but we’re aware that this isn’t the narrative for a lot of families. Even for us, there were days it felt like stumbling in the dark to get through another day of school. Zoom this, Google Meet that, password and access for this, another for that. It was difficult.

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My wife, along with educators all over the country, made a herculean jump to teach students who were dispersed in varying home environments in a virtual format. They struggled through the end of the year, essentially making the best of the varying tools that were available, and making many trips to deliver paper packets and to ensure that kids were OK. There’s no doubt that most kids suffered academically, and some severely due to the lack of devices and connectivity.

Schools scrambled through the summer to prepare buildings for in-person learning while also working to implement varying levels of digital platforms. In a district where one-to-one hasn’t been implemented, efforts were made to inventory what devices and technology were available at school as well as at home in an effort to ensure students would have devices should the need arise for virtual learning. Our district went back to school on a hybrid schedule where half of the students are in class on Monday and Wednesday, the other half on Tuesday and Thursday, with kids working virtually on days when they’re not in class. This left families and schools in a hunt for devices that have been in relatively short supply since the spring.

Educators spent weeks preparing to teach kids both in class as well as provide instruction for students working from home. They’ve worked hard to prepare tools that would make everything as easy for students and parents as possible, but the reality is, there’s still not enough standardization; neither students nor parents have enough literacy with the plethora of sites, platforms, etc. that are required for the students to learn; and our educators simply haven’t been given the time, support, or resources to properly implement any of this. 

My kids have adapted well, but they spend their virtual days not only trying to learn new material, but trying to make sure that they’ve followed all of the necessary steps to ensure an assignment is uploaded correctly, or all the right boxes are checked off, etc. My wife and her fellow educators spend their days teaching half their kids in the classroom, trying to provide assignments and instruction for students working virtually, and preparing several days of instruction and material in advance, in case there is another shutdown of schools.

Parents are struggling to help their kids. Most of us didn’t get a degree in education and are ill-prepared to assist and provide the necessary help. I can’t count the number of posts I see daily from friends on social media related to the struggles they have with their kids as everyone tries to navigate the “new normal.” 

There are three things that simply must happen to ensure that this generation of students receive the kind of education they need: We must find a way to provide reasonable, affordable high-speed internet to all. We must invest in digital transformation in our schools and communities so that all students have access to education and that they’re learning the skills that will lead to success in the future. We must provide the kind of training and education necessary for all to live and operate in this new digital world. Parents can’t help their students if they’re not given the resources to assist. Communities need to take a holistic approach in this effort, and that means all stakeholders in a community have a role to play. 

For all the frustration and negativity that exists about the current state of education delivery, the exciting thing is that we can now recognize the problem that exists, and we can address it. Churches and community centers have opened their doors as safe locations for students to work, organizations are working to provide devices, and school boards are looking at how to redistribute funding to better enable our educators and students. It seems that we’re finally working to make sure all of our students and families have access to the tools they need, even if it took a global pandemic to make it happen.

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About the Author: Wes Kerr is the Connected Nation Director of Community Solutions. He helps ensure the implementation of Technology Action Plans developed for communities through Connected Nation’s Connected Community Engagement Program (Connectedsm) and works closely with clients and stakeholders to provide solutions that will help them meet their technology goals.