Equity & Diversity

It’s Not Just a ‘Digital Divide': Survey Shows Variations in Districts’ Coronavirus Response

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 16, 2020 5 min read
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Districts’ varying responses to the coronavirus pandemic is showing, yet again, how a multitude of disparities in terms of funding, staffing, and support play out for students, a new Education Week survey shows.

“They survey results definitely mirror some of the other things we see. These are definitely unprecedented times and what bears out in the survey is that the challenges are impacting vulnerable students and families more than others,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, a nonprofit that advocates for disadvantaged students and students of color.

A nationally representative survey, fielded by the EdWeek Research Center, was conducted online March 10 and 11—slightly before the crest of school closures due to COVID-19. A total of 1,165 K-12 educators took the survey, including 420 principals and 745 other district leaders, including curriculum and instruction personnel, superintendents, technology directors, and health and human service directors.

Read on for three of the findings.

1. Many leaders report having emergency plans, but those plans weren’t necessarily well tailored for the coronavirus.

Half of those surveyed said that their district had an emergency plan that addressed “some aspects” of pandemics or disease outbreaks, but nearly a third said that they either did not have such a plan or the plan did not address pandemics.

Even well-prepared school leaders have told Education Week that their plans didn’t always directly line up with the realities of the coronavirus. For example, their plans may have been well suited for seasonal influenza outbreaks, but not an illness that survives as long on surfaces as the coronavirus or one that would disrupt school for weeks.

However, most of the school leaders said they were in close contact with public health agencies, a best practice.

2. The “digital divide” is real and it’s starkly playing out as schools close.

Forty one percent of the school leaders said they couldn’t provide remote or e-learning activities to every student in their district for even one day. Troublingly, the second most common response was the opposite: 22 percent said they could provide those opportunities “as long as we needed to.”

Those findings point to drastically different e-learning capacities—and portend that America’s students will receive vastly different educational experiences over the next few weeks or months, especially if schools remain closed.

The gaps are also associated with demographics. When EdWeek researchers broke the findings out by districts’ socioeconomic status, they found that 31 percent of districts where less than a quarter of students were low income said they could not provide e-learning opportunities. But more than half of districts where most students were low-income said they could not provide those learning opportunities.

In terms of density, school leaders in rural districts were the least likely to say they could not provide e-learning at any grade level. While just 16 percent of suburban districts said they couldn’t provide e-learning, 29 percent of rural districts reported that problem. Rural communities disproportionately suffer from a lack of broadband capacity, Education Week has previously reported.

The survey also found divides in terms of respondents’ function within schools. District leaders were a lot more pessimistic than principals about remote-learning capacity: 45 percent of them said they could not productively provide e-learning, compared to smaller percentages of elementary, middle, and high school principals.

It’s possible these divides reflect differences in knowledge: Districts’ central offices may have the best sense of their infrastructure capacities.

In general, principals of older high school students were also more likely to believe they could provide remote learning. As schools struggle to develop either online or paper-and-pencil packets of learning materials, the findings portend more challenges to find appropriate, standards-aligned activities for young students, including those learning to read.

3. Gaps Exist in Districts’ Cleaning and Communications Abilities

The digital divide isn’t the only troubling gap in the EdWeek findings.

The EdWeek Research Center also found districts with high numbers of students of poverty were less likely to report that they were “daily cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces,” such as door handles and light switches, than other districts, with about 68 percent of those districts reporting those activities, compared to 84 percent of the wealthiest districts.

And the districts with the neediest students were less likely to ask sick students to stay at home—49 percent of those districts said that, compared to 73 percent of wealthy districts—a finding that may reflect widespread concern about food insecurity and lack of supervision for students whose parents must work.

They were also much less likely than wealthier school systems to offer paid leave for staff caring for sick family members, the survey showed.

Nearly all the superintendents interviewed by Education Week have highlighted communication as a key strategy to keep staff and students safe and build relationships with them at a time of massive uncertainty for communities. But some communities struggled more than others to communicate.A quarter of rural districts, for example, said they had not communicated with their community about what to do in an outbreak of coronavirus, compared to 4 percent of urban districts. And they were less likely than urban districts to have used the news media or a student information system to communicate with parents.

Those findings may reflect the small size of rural districts and fewer central office staff: Smaller districts struggled more with communication efforts than did large ones.

“I think what a lot of your data says to me, and positions us to do, is that post all of this, we really need to think about how do we continue to provide districts the resources they need regardless of whether they’re rural or urban,” Smith Arrillaga of the Education Trust-West said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

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