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If educators learned anything from the coronavirus pandemic, it was that digital equity is a complex and moving target. Never before was the breadth of the digital divide more apparent — and never had it been clearer that no single solution could serve every individual situation.
As schools closed across the globe in 2020, we saw a wide range of responses from districts. Northshore School District in Washington state put the brakes on remote instruction until it could provide equitable services to all students. The New York City Department of Education loaned out 300,000 iPads so students could keep learning. And across the globe, educators were scrambling for patchwork solutions to put a device and broadband internet into each student’s home.
Of course, getting students connected was just the first step. Educators also faced a host of challenges serving students with special needs, those who lacked adult supervision and those who were homeless, abused or caring for their siblings — the list goes on.
There may be no perfect solution to the equity problem, but there are plenty of imperfect ones. Here are five solutions educators tried during the pandemic that can be adapted and improved on in the future to make learning more accessible, flexible and equitable in a variety of challenging situations.
1. Free Wi-Fi
Several internet providers committed to offering Wi-Fi hotspots for fee or discounted prices during the pandemic. Educators, parents and others should continue to advocate for continued low or no-cost connectivity for those who cannot afford home internet and school leaders should make sure information about free broadband is communicated to parents.
2. School bus fleets
A number or schools made headlines when they used their bus fleets to deliver not just breakfast and lunch to students throughout the district, but Wi-Fi hotspots and library books as well.
“How do those bus deliveries become a place where parents can walk up and say I need such and such?” says former superintendent Lu Young, executive director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Next Generation Leadership. “Delivering those meals provides a safe and distant touch point. Having those buses out there as the new face of the school district provides a way to stay in touch that many families could access.”
3. Public television
Los Angeles Unified School District partnered with three local public TV stations to run daily educational programming from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the pandemic. Curated from the existing PBS library of educational shows, each station tailored it's programming to a specific age group, from elementary to middle to high school students. District curriculum experts from LAUSD even worked with PBS to add in prompts for students to help highlight what they should be thinking about as they watch the shows.
The pandemic taught all of us that learning doesn't stop when the school shuts down. We need to find more ways for students to access learning on their schedule.
4. School buildings
In rural North Carolina, families without internet access gathered in school parking lots to tap into the district’s Wi-Fi during the pandemic. At Rowan-Salisbury Schools, where one of the nation’s fastest digital cities lies just five miles from an internet dead zone, the technology team worked with access point providers to jack up school Wi-Fi signals so students could hop online from the safety of their cars.
5. Old-fashioned paper
No matter how heroically a district tries to place a device in every student’s hands, there will always be students who won't be able to access online learning for one reason or another. The Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership urges district leaders to regularly distribute multilingual learning toolkits in paper as well as digital form for every grade level and major subject so students without devices or connectivity can continue learning — at least until more robust online learning infrastructures are in place.
As educator and Forbes contributor Colin Seale writes, “There is no exhaustive how-to list for equity because equity work is never quite finished. The key to providing equitable distance learning opportunities for all students is to recognize what this looks like for each student’s unique situation.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick. This is an updated version of a post that published on March 30, 2021.