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Coronavirus: Remote learning by schools exposes digital divide in Dayton area

Dayton Daily News | LOCAL NEWS | Aug 9, 2020

By Chris Stewart, Jeremy P. Kelley


Thousands of area students lacked internet access just as more and more schools move classes online during a persistent coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey taken in the spring.


The digital divide stretches from rural areas where lines or signals don’t reach, to urban students where the cost of broadband is out of reach, according to local data.


“We’re running out of time. It takes time to build a plan. It takes time to implement one-to-one initiatives for student computing. It takes time to procure and then provision broadband services,” said Thor Sage, executive director of the Miami Valley Educational Computer Association.


“The clock is ticking and there’s a lot of concern about being ready,” he said.


Schools, parents adjusting


Area school boards have made tough decisions, voting in recent weeks on how much time students will be in the classroom or learning online. Most districts started by giving the option of in-person classes or entirely online instruction.


But in recent weeks, Dayton, Huber Heights, Yellow Springs and Northmont are among more than a dozen districts and charter schools that have said they’ll start the year fully online. And plans continue to shift daily.


“It is unknown how many students will opt for remote learning and even lesser-known how often the COVID pandemic may send schools or classrooms into remote learning,” said Amy Anyanwu, Montgomery County Educational Service Center assistant superintendent. “We do know that we must prepare structures that allow for remote learning either scheduled or made necessary due to flare-ups or outbreaks.”


Students at Trotwood-Madison City Schools will be taught completely remotely for at least the first nine weeks.


“We are hopeful that the COVID-19 case numbers in Montgomery County will decrease to the point that we can consider the blended or in-person options in the near future,” said Trotwood Superintendent Reva Cosby in a statement to the district.


But as many as 3,800 K-12 students in Montgomery County alone experienced internet insecurity when the pandemic surged this spring, including 1,080 students — or 42% of Trotwood students — enrolled in Trotwood schools, according to the educational service center’s spring survey.


Virginia Ward of Trotwood said she struggled as her two foster children in high school and two elementary school students she provided child care for tried this spring to complete school online.


“It was just a waste,” she said. “They couldn’t get on the internet a lot of times. When they are presenting something via video, the computer’s not fast enough, the internet is not good enough ... You might get five words and it stops, and five more and it stops. I mean it was terrible.”


Wired internet service stops 1,000 feet short of Ward’s Sycamore Woods neighborhood.

“We still can’t get good internet service out here,” Ward said. “The other problem: a lot can’t afford internet.”


As the virus shuttered schools earlier this year, the educational service center collected data from all of Montgomery County’s public school districts and determined 3,529 students (of about 65,000) were disconnected from the internet. That’s more than 1 in 20, or the equivalent of about one child in every classroom countywide.


When other schools such as charter schools and the educational service center’s special learning centers were added in, a digital divide working group anticipated approximately 3,800 students in Montgomery County would need help securing reliable, affordable, easily accessible internet service for the 2020-21 school year.


Some area districts have bridged the gaps using existing resources. Others will need more help as the future remains in flux, Anyanwu said.


“The numbers are constantly changing with job loss, family situations and decisions about school options,” Anyanwu said.


Internet insecurity has negative consequences not only for students, she said, but entire families.


“Without high-speed internet access, students cannot connect to remote learning, employment that requires working from home is not possible and telehealth services are not available,” she said.

‘Apollo 13 moment'


Between 60% and 70% of the state’s school districts had one-to-one technology programs (one device per student) as of the spring, said Jeff Andrews, CEO of the Management Council, which coordinates the state’s 18-member Information Technology Centers that support 1.4 million students in 700 public schools.


Andrews said the percentage was likely similar for internet connectivity, but the numbers remain hazy. Of the state’s school districts served by the tech centers, 100 did not respond to the spring survey, he said.


“We don’t have definitive numbers that are going to illuminate the whole issue,” he said.

But based on the data at hand, it was probable a third of Ohio K-12 students lacked a device, internet connectivity or both this spring. The numbers could be dramatically improved by now, Andrews said.


“March was sort of an Apollo 13 moment, where everybody went home on Friday and came back Monday and we had to make this up right now,” he said. “But schools have had several months to think a little harder about how to make education effective remotely.”


Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said her district has spent more than $6 million since March on technology costs related to the COVID-19 shutdown.


Between the district’s own purchases, plus grants from The Connor Group, the Tait Foundation and others, She said DPS is in “relatively good shape” on computers and Wi-Fi hot spots for students to use.


“We’ve mapped our families, and the hot spots go one per family,” Lolli said. “We need to make sure the hot spot gets into one child’s hand in that family.”


But supply chain issues are a worry in some cases. One order of Chromebook computers for Dayton high school students is still on order, expected to arrive Aug. 28. West Carrollton school officials said a shipment of 460 Chromebooks has been in the works for awhile, but the district is still waiting.

“March was sort of an Apollo 13 moment.”- Jeff Andrews, CEO of the Management Council

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Schools sometimes have a supply of backup laptops or iPads, but in some cases they are older models or ones that students exchanged because they weren’t working well.

Many charter schools in Dayton also are starting this year online. The three Horizon Science Academies are giving each student a Chromebook or iPad ahead of the Aug. 17 first day of school, according to Christopher Murphy, spokesman for the Concept Schools chain. Murphy said Horizon Science has Chromebooks on hand and ready.


“The need for hot spots is being determined based on parent input,” Murphy said. “Students who do not have access to the internet or low bandwidth will be given a hot spot with unlimited data to be used for remote learning at home.”


Pandemic reveals divide’s depth


Internet insecurity was a concern well before the pandemic, said Bill Callahan, research and policy director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.


“We’re paying now for years of not taking this seriously,” he said.


Students and parents without devices or decent connectivity haven’t been able to fully participate in mainstream classroom activities that have taken place online for years, Callahan said.


The void includes the ability to email teachers, access a school’s portal for receiving and handing in ordinary classroom assignments, or go online for reading material and research a subject, he said.


“A homework gap didn’t originate with COVID. It’s an experience that people have been having for a long time ... It just became much more intense around the middle of March,” he said. “Whether or not everybody has their kids back in the classroom, this problem isn’t going to go away.”


The pandemic has made a difference in the way the digital divide is viewed by policymakers and community leaders, Andrews said.


“Not only did it expose more inequities when some kids have laptops and internet and other kids don’t, it exacerbates those inequities,” he said.


While some schools spend $20,000 or more per year for overall education costs per student, others spend as little as $6,000 a pupil, Andrews said.


“There’s no question that if you have more means that creates choices,” he said. “We’re working as hard as we can to make sure that we address that equity part of the equation so that when a school does have to flip that switch and become a remote learning environment, there are options.”


Dayton-area community leaders also recognized how school closures this spring revealed a wider digital chasm for some area families. The Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission convened a Digital Divide/Internet Insecurity Work Group with representatives from Montgomery County, the city of Dayton, the Dayton Foundation, Dayton Metro Library, Learn to Earn Dayton, the Miami Valley Communications Council, the Miami Valley Educational Computer Association and the Montgomery County Educational Service Center.


Federal, state money should help


The pandemic has brought millions of dollars in federal assistance to the region, and government, civic and educational leaders say it’s imperative students experiencing internet insecurity get some of that assistance as soon as possible.


“It’s been tricky for several reasons. For one, CARES Act money has not been flowing as quickly as we would have liked,” Sage said. “It would have been great if back in the spring we could have had access to that money and then began procuring devices. Although, that’s a common situation throughout the country.”


Montgomery County received $92.77 million in federal CARES Act funds in May. It announced just within the past two weeks that $10 million of that will go to a grant program for schools, part of which can be used to address the technology needs of area students, said Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert.


“We’re going to need more Wi-Fi boxes because every household does not have Wi-Fi,” he said. “We now have the ability to expand Wi-Fi throughout the Miami Valley.”


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Colbert said the money can also be used to buy Chromebooks.


“We’re hoping that with everything we’re doing throughout the community that we’re addressing the needs, and that we continue to work hard as this pandemic grows to plug those gaps,” he said.


Individual schools and districts also were designated for CARES Act allocations, ranging from $160,000 each in Oakwood and Bellbrook, to $1 million each in Kettering and Xenia, to $9 million in Dayton. In some lower-income districts, that money will more than offset state budget cuts, while in other schools it fell short. But many schools say they have not received that money yet.


The Dayton Foundation awarded a $70,000 grant last month to Learn to Earn Dayton to purchase 900 Chromebooks for schools in the Dayton, Jefferson, Northridge and Trotwood-Madison districts.


Lisa Minor, Trotwood-Madison City Schools director of curriculum and instruction, said that local effort and others — along with work over the summer by the district’s technology specialists — will ensure enough devices for a one-to-one experience when school opens.

“Support from community partners and organizations like Learn to Earn Dayton will help to mitigate these barriers,” she said.


Federal lawmakers continue to debate a second stimulus bill. Some versions of it have included money for expanding broadband access.


Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted on Friday confirmed that the state will allocate $50 million to provide students with computers and hot spots. The program may help more for the future than this fall, as schools have to apply by Aug. 21, and the state will announce financial awards the week of Aug. 31 to Sept. 4. Schools could then use the money to order the technology.


The Buckeye Institute has called for targeted state grants to help bring high-speed broadband service to underserved areas of the state to ensure adequate access for distance learning, telehealth services and work from home.


The grants, offset by other state spending cuts, would help bring networks to communities that have not already received other government assistance for broadband, according Greg R. Lawson, a research fellow at the conservative think tank.


Sage said the Miami Valley Educational Computer Association is working to negotiate contracts with broadband carriers, leveraging volume for districts in the area to get better rates and keep costs down for districts and taxpayers.


The association is a consortium of 31 school districts and service centers from Clark, Clinton, Fayette, Greene, Highland, Madison, Montgomery and Ross counties. MVECA is one of the 18 Information Technology Centers licensed by the Ohio Department of Education.


The mission of a public school


Paying for devices and connectivity is perhaps the easiest part of the equation, Callahan said. Helping families become proficient with the technology will be harder to solve.


“I don’t know how many school districts actually have any kind training and support capacity. It’s going to become a more and more important question,” he said. “If a parent doesn’t know anything about what they’re looking at on a computer screen, how do you expect those parents to supervise online learning?”


Dayton Public Schools is working to build some parent workshops about technology, Lolli said.


“We have a team designing sessions to help them understand what the curriculum is, how it’s different online, what the grading is, how do I use the technology, how do I connect the hot spot, things our parents may need to know,” she said.


No online learning system will work if parents and students aren’t comfortable logging in, Callahan said.


“There are districts which have done some early tracking of how many of those devices are getting turned on. A disappointing percentage has emerged,” he said.


That fits with Lolli’s statement that 600 DPS students (about 5%) had no contact with their school after the mid-March shutdown, despite outreach efforts.


However schools proceed, the year promises to be difficult and unpredictable, Sage said.


“But the most important thing is can you in some way, shape or form, without having direct physical access to a student, still have face-to-face interactions. … and allow educators to remain in touch with their students to continue instruction in the best way they can?”


“It’s just about trying to fulfill the mission of a public school.”