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News >  Education

Digital divide challenges Washington districts seeking equity in at-home learning

UPDATED: Tue., March 24, 2020

Dyllan Muller works on a laptop computer during class on May 16, 2019, in Spokane. Disparities in access to computers and the internet make it difficult for districts to offer equal learning opportunities while schools are shut during the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Dyllan Muller works on a laptop computer during class on May 16, 2019, in Spokane. Disparities in access to computers and the internet make it difficult for districts to offer equal learning opportunities while schools are shut during the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The coronavirus pandemic is posing some tough questions for school districts in Spokane and the rest of the nation.

One of the biggest: How many lessons will be lost by the children who need them most? Because of COVID-19, the learning curve just got a lot steeper for children who have the furthest to climb.

As the crisis deepens, so too does the digital divide that isolates tens of thousands of Washington students who lack internet connections, devices and the means to obtain them.

Some reside on farms or isolated towns, but most live in low-income city neighborhoods, often with a single parent or in families that can’t afford to stay home from work even in the best of times.

More reliant than their peers on school resources, those children are more susceptible than ever to learning loss because parents or guardians can’t afford to stay home from work, or can no longer rely on the support of family and friends because of social-distancing mandates.

And should school closures in the state extend beyond April 27 and into the summer, the learning loss could be profound – a “summer slide” of epic proportions.

“In a strange way this is kind of what happens every June,” said Amber Waldref, director of the Zone Project, a nonprofit that works with business and community stakeholders to improve the lives of low-income residents in northeast Spokane.

“What we’re seeing – and I hope the community is starting to see by it happening during the school year – is maybe we can get a better understanding of this problem,” Waldref said.

The problem is national. The so-called homework gap affects roughly 12 million children across the country, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee.

Studies indicate low-income students and students of color are most often those who lack broadband access at home.

However, local districts are attempting to bridge the gap during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Spokane, the district is issuing thousands of laptops to needy families and pointing them toward internet providers for free or low-cost Wi-Fi.

Meanwhile, teachers are working to tailor lesson plans, using a variety of online tools.

However, those efforts are complicated by mandates in Washington and other states to offer those lessons equitably.

Last month, before the shutdown, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal told districts that makeup days this summer would be preferable to using a comprehensive online model that might shortchange special education students, those learning English and those without connectivity and computers.

However, Reykdal cautioned all districts to “consider if they can deliver services equitably.”

Clearly they cannot, and the situation is worse in Spokane Public Schools, where 57% of the district’s 31,000 students receive free and reduced-price meals.

Rural school districts also suffer from a lack of connectivity.

“Internet, it’s just not there for the vast majority of our students,” said Marcus Morgan, superintendent of the Reardan-Edwall School District.

The district has responded by sending buses along their regular routes, delivering lesson plans every Monday.

The St. John-Endicott School District is taking the same approach, according to Superintendent Suzanne Schmick.

“Enrichment review packets,” as Schmick calls them, are being shipped via bus along with lunches. The district also is attempting to broaden internet access through working with telephone companies.

“We’re all in this together,” Schmick said.

However, a divide remains. Because of Reykdal’s instruction, all districts have been careful to describe online lessons as “optional” or “supplemental.”

That means work won’t be graded, which raises concerns whether connected students will suffer because their education will be less rigorous.

Teachers have been pulled into the fray over the sticky issue of equity.

On Monday, the Washington Education Association posted on Facebook that “Governor (Jay) Inslee and OSPI Superintendent Reykdal have to figure out how to guarantee an education for those kids without distance learning options, including regular mail.”

Citing a Schoolhouse Washington Report that 40,000 Washington students lack a mailing address, the WEA urged Inslee and Reykdal “to give further guidance for teachers.”

The message ended by saying that the teachers union “is not blocking distance learning instruction for our students and their families.”

More recently, state officials have sent a mixed message regarding online instruction.

They are encouraging districts to pilot distance-learning programs, whether online or printed or a combination of both. However, Reykdal said districts shouldn’t “design a system that you know on the front end won’t work for some students,” he said.

Those concerns are why some districts, including those in Seattle and Tacoma, didn’t initially offer comprehensive digital learning.

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