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Learning Library Blog COVID-19 thrusts digital equity to the forefront
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COVID-19 thrusts digital equity to the forefront

By Jerry Fingal
March 26, 2020
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With millions of students out of school across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, districts everywhere are scrambling to put in place remote learning programs. A big stumbling-block is guaranteeing that all students have equal opportunities to access the remote learning programs. In other words, digital equity is suddenly front and center.

Coincidentally, Patricia Brown and Carla Jefferson are putting on the ISTE expert webinar “Why Equity Matters!” on March 31. It has been in the planning stages for months. But in the context of the times, Brown jokes that the webinar should be renamed “Now You Know Why Equity Matters!”

Brown, an instructional technology coach for the Ladue School District in Missouri, and Jefferson, an instructional technology coordinator for Darlington County School District in South Carolina, are on the frontlines of what will likely prove to be a watershed moment in remote learning and digital equity.

“It’s definitely bringing some attention to things that a lot of people have been talking about and nobody was listening to,” Brown said. “Now, when it affects people in their own communities, they are realizing they don’t have it together like they thought they had it together. People are having their eyes opened.”

Those inequities aren’t just limited to ensuring students have devices and internet access. Brown and Jefferson say there are multiple dimensions of digital equity. One of their focuses will be on the need for professional learning and providing support for teachers, students and families.

“When we talk about equity, we can talk a lot about devices and curriculum, but we also have to think about the basic needs that our kids and our families have,” Brown said. “Sometimes we forget that every situation is different.

“We need to think about those basic needs, whether that’s providing lunches or breakfasts, or social-emotional resources for families or having counselors and social workers available,” Brown said. “That’s part of equity, too, providing what is needed for your population or for your community.”

Jefferson said that amid the pandemic, there’s a rush to catch up.

“All of a sudden money is appearing for devices,” she said. “But at this point, we're already home. I don't know how can you provide the training that's required to support the student, teachers and parents. It’s almost like it's really too late. It’s kind of throwing the money away if you don’t have the infrastructure.”

Jefferson’s school district was better prepared than most. The district’s high school students have been taking home devices for several years and students in grades three through eight started taking home devices this year. In March, the district was preparing to pilot an e-learning program for inclement weather at three of its schools. But with the pandemic, the e-learning program went from pilot to full, immediate implementation.

“We had a framework in place at the beginning of the year for what an e-learning day would look like,” she said. “It’s just going a lot faster than what we anticipated.”

A key component of the district’s e-learning plan is “a very robust help” system with Jefferson and several colleagues staffing a hotline to help parents and teachers. Calls from frustrated parents during the first week of implementation have provided a window to levels of inequity within the district, Jefferson said. For students who hadn’t been using their take-home devices as intended, the learning curve is very steep. And some parents are better prepared than others to help their children navigate the e-learning world.

For Brown, the call to close schools until April 3 came during the district’s spring break. That set in motion efforts to launch a remote learning program. Students in middle and high schools have devices to take home but elementary students do not. That was a gap that needed to be addressed.

Brown sees these times as an opportunity to show the potential of technology and the importance of digital equity. Suddenly, people are paying attention.

“I think we’re going to see a real shift in the way people think about education, learning, teaching, home life versus school life, that connection,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, it also exposes the inequities that have existed for a long time that people have chosen to ignore. Now, we're forced to talk about it. And my hope is because of that a lot of change is going to happen in the future.”

Educators interested in learning more can register for the free ISTE Expert Webinar “Why Equity Matters!” on March 31 at 4 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET. Patricia Brown and Carla Jefferson will lead the webinar. Sign up to watch live or view the recording later. This webinar is open to everyone.


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