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Closing the COVID Gap - A Social Justice Commitment

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
 on 
June 25, 2020

The COVID Gap is disproportionately impacting communities that have been historically underserved. This is not an equity issue alone, this is also a social justice issue. As educators we must rise up and create lessons that are more equitable and accessible!

I believe all educators were trying to do what was best for students as the world seemed to shift on its axis, in response to COVID-19. In my home state, the charge from our governor was "to do no harm" to students, while trying to maintain some form of instruction. The response to this unprecedented moment in our lives was a collective shift to online, distanced learning. While this may have worked well for some families it was a failure for many. In order to meet the goal of "do no harm", our transition in response to COVID-19 should have included distance learning for all families. That means including those without devices, too few devices, and those without reliable internet access.

Take a close look at which communities were left behind in our rush to implement an internet-based distanced-learning plan. You guessed it, socioeconomic-disadvantaged families and communities of color were disproportionately left behind. Even with efforts to narrow the digital divide African-American and Hispanic families have lower rates of internet access and fewer devices in the home for students to engage in school than their white and asian peers. The same hurdles exist for rural communities.

According to the Pew Research Center 1 in 5 students cannot complete their homework as a result of a lack of reliable internet access. "It’s a problem that many educators have been grappling with for years, but one that has been exacerbated—and made more public—by COVID-19."

The COVID Gap is real, it is disproportionately impacting historically under-served communities, and it will widen existing achievement gaps. The truth is the gap is only going to get wider if we remain in a distanced-learning environment and approach schooling with primarily digital solutions. I'm not confident the answer is to somehow equip all families with reliable internet and computers by the fall. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, which would provide $1.5 billion for hotspots and devices, but the Senate has not. Even if these funds become available and districts can get to work providing internet access and devices for the fall we need to pause and consider whether or not this is the best use of federal funds.

For some districts it is a worthy pursuit. On a recent call I had with an Assistant Superintendent, he shared that of the 12,000+ students in his district only 28 students did not have reliable internet access at home and/or a device. However, compared to a rural district that is using Organized Binder, they experienced a dismal 15% open rate this spring on all things sent home digitally. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, one-quarter of the 700,000+ students lack internet access and the district only has enough devices for two-thirds of the students. These disparities are everywhere. This is one of the reasons I respect districts like the School District of Philadelphia, who ordered educators to avoid digital learning due to varied internet access in the city. 

Let's also not forget the very real problem of screen time and the developing brain, an issue that pre-COVID-19 seemed to be at the forefront of discussions. Just last year, the Mayo Clinic noted that too much screen time can lead to "obesity, irregular sleep schedules and shorter duration of sleep, behavior problems". Yet my niece who is in 3rd grade is required to be on zoom 6 hours each day for school.

Is there a different, healthier, more equitable, more timely, more sustainable, and more affordable option that relies on existing infrastructure that families already have in place? Yes, there is! Think cell phones, paper, and pencils.

A study from Stanford focusing on early literacy in preschool students found text messaging is the most effective and low cost way for educators to send home lesson plans to parents. If it is effective with preschool parents it can work for all parents. As of 2019, 96% of Americans had a cell phone and it is likely that number has increased. What if educators sent home lesson plans via text message, in addition to or in place of emailing or posting them online? At a minimum educators would reach 96% of the families they serve.

The answer to bridging the digital divide and working to close the COVID Gap in the pandemic is not more hotspots and computers. The answer in an equitably distanced learning scenario is a blend of analog solutions, those that allow students to engage in school work at home with or without the internet, with instructions or lesson plans sent to parents or students via text message - in conjunction with internet or digital solutions. If your school returns to a hybrid model (part school / part home) instead of 100% distanced learning then students who are equipped with analog resources can engage and keep up at home and school. They will also have a portfolio to not only organize their schooling but carry between school and home without losing it.

This is not to suggest we shouldn't utilize online and digital learning resources, nor should we put on hold our effort to close the digital divide. How amazing would it be if the HEROES Act passed and every family in the country could have broadband access and a device for every student? But in the immediacy of our response to the pandemic we must be focused on closing the COVID Gap by being certain all students can equitably engage in their learning today.

This is not an equity issue alone, this is also a social justice issue. The COVID Gap is disproportionately impacting communities that have been historically underserved. In light of the systemic racial tensions ignited by the murder of George Floyd, as educators - we must rise up and create new systems to make learning possible for all students!

ANALOG SOLUTIONS

When I suggest analog solutions I am not referring to content or curriculum alone - aka textbooks, worksheets, etc. I am referencing tools like Organized Binder, that structure student learning in the classroom and at home but are not reliant upon internet access and/or devices. We invite you take a moment to explore our equitable education success platform to help students be more successful in whatever distanced learning scenario your school adopts in the fall.

Thank you for reading and sharing,

Mitch

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