Equity & Diversity

Laptop Delays, Zoom Glitches, Equity Gaps: Remote Learning Faces Big Challenges

By Mark Lieberman — August 24, 2020 11 min read
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The Leander school district, near Austin, Texas, was set to start the school year with full-time remote learning on Aug. 13, but ended up delaying until the following week after a web content filtering tool malfunctioned, potentially preventing some high school students from connecting to the internet on their school-provided devices.

A couple hours’ drive away, the San Antonio district had distributed 30,000 Chromebooks to K-3 students in early April. But the district eventually determined that tablets work better for younger students, so it ordered a bundle using state funds and is now in the process of swapping them out, leaving the Chromebooks as surplus.

Indianapolis public schools sent surveys to parents between April and July, gauging whether or not they had broadband service at home. But it later became clear that some parents who answered “yes” didn’t have a connection at home that was strong enough to support two or three children at once, especially if parents were also working remotely.

And on Monday, the first day of school for students in Atlanta, Clark County, Nev., and across Arkansas, Zoom was down worldwide.

These situations highlight the complex and oftentimes unpredictable technological challenges schools are facing as many start the new academic year with buildings once again closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Twenty-one of the 25 largest school districts in the country have chosen remote learning only as their back-to-school instructional model, affecting over 4.5 million students, according to Education Week’s reopenings tracker.

Many districts have gotten better at some of the remote learning basics, such as ensuring every student has a digital device and an internet connection at home.

Others continue to struggle to achieve the basics as gaps in access to virtual education threaten to widen existing disparities in education that leave poor students and students of color at a disproportionate disadvantage.

California students, particularly those in districts that serve areas with a high percentage of low-income families, need a million more devices, state officials told The Los Angeles Times this month. The state’s Lynwood district, with more than 14,000 students and a 94 percent Latino and 5 percent Black student population, couldn’t find Wi-Fi hotspots for sale, so it partnered with the city to temporarily provide internet access at a few city-owned locations.

“The school house and the school bus are now a computer and Wi-Fi,” said Cara McClellan, assistant counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has recently taken up nationwide efforts to advocate for expanding at-home internet access.

“In some districts, we’re talking about a third of Black students who are not able to access their education,” McClellan said. “This is clearly in line with our school desegregation work.”

But even in districts where every student is connected, big challenges remain. Making sure that teachers know how to construct meaningful virtual instruction for students, and that parents and students know how to access and engage with it, is a formidable task, especially with a relatively short time to prepare.

“Having 20,000 laptops for 20,000 kids is not the be-all end-all by any stretch of the imagination,” said Leslie Wilson, founder and former CEO of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that for two decades has been helping districts engage students with technology tools. “It could be disastrous in a lot of ways if you don’t have the infrastructure to support it, and if you have some kids who have internet at home and some who don’t.”

Ken Thompson, the chief IT officer for the San Antonio district, has spent recent weekends coaching parents on using the digital devices that have recently been provided to students. He’s been working with the district’s chief academic officer to trim the number of passwords to enter and buttons to click. He’s even taken to troubleshooting families’ connectivity issues from his car, pulled over on the side of the road.

“Everything is riding on IT right now,” Thompson said.

Rapid Surge in Demand for Laptops

Schools were caught off guard this spring when the COVID-19 outbreak forced buildings in all 50 states to close. While some had already outfitted every student with a take-home digital device, others were only inching toward that goal when the urgency suddenly spiked.

The rapid surge in demand for laptops and tablets led to a delay in shipments for device orders. More than 8.4 million devices were shipped to districts between April and June, 54 percent more than during the same quarter last year, said Lauren Guenveur, a senior research analyst who specializes in devices at technology market tracker IDC.

Still, even as the supply chain has fully recovered from the strain it experienced in March, Guenveur said, getting devices to all the districts asking for them won’t be easy.

“Will that need be fulfilled by the end of the year in 2020? Probably not,” she said. “The good news is from all the evidence we saw, the orders will be fulfilled. It’s just the unprecedented demand that is really throwing everyone for a loop.”

That demand is particularly strong heading into the new school year because many districts that had expected to reopen school buildings at least part-time are keeping them closed for now. The threat of the virus has persisted nationwide and even increased in some states since the spring, and many schools haven’t found the time or funding to safely reopen buildings while adhering to public health recommendations and accommodating concerned families and staff.

The biggest difficulty for some districts is grappling with the uncertainty of what’s ahead, and planning simultaneously for a variety of scenarios.

Administrators at the Indianapolis district did “the hardest planning first,” focusing early in the summer on contingencies for a hybrid model in which some students learn in the building and others stay home, said Ashley Cowger, the district’s executive director of professional learning and the director of its e-learning efforts this year.

When the school board decided on July 30 to keep all students at home through at least Oct. 2, administrators were able to tweak the hybrid plan. “We’re not executing that right now, but it’s in our back pocket,” she said.

Device deliveries arrived in June and July, and the district spent the last two weeks offering the devices for pickup at school buildings. Twelve weeks of optional professional development for teachers this summer focused on “what blended learning is, what the quality practices are, how to do things like assess students when you’re in a remote environment,” Cowger said.

In the last two weeks, the district had to order more “Mi-Fi” cards—wireless routers that act as mobile hotspots for Internet connections—to help ensure that families with weak internet connections are able to log on. “It’s a little bit of a moving target, but we’ve committed to responding to the needs of our families,” Cowger said. “If that means we need to purchase 250 to 500 more Mi-Fi cards, that’s what we’re doing.”

Glitches may be unavoidable, though. Some students’ home internet service providers had installed a security feature that prevented them from logging into class. “That created a little disruption to afternoon attendance” on the first day, Cowger said, but the problem has since been resolved.

Schools that haven’t reopened yet should likely build in time for glitches and malfunctions to eat up the first day or two of remote instruction.

Some students in the Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska couldn’t log in to Zoom because of a back-end glitch with the videoconference platform’s connection to a districtwide grading portal. Less than half of high school students in North Carolina’s Richmond County district were able to log in to classes on the first day of school and some of them were still in line to receive Wi-Fi hotspots that hadn’t yet arrived. Login issues at several North Carolina schools were resolved by noon on the first day of school, but officials there weren’t immediately sure what caused the problems.

The Eastmont district in Washington state was pondering a three-day delay to the start of the school year after a computer system upgrade that had begun in January was posing roadblocks to accessing teacher rosters and schedules, and preventing teachers from engaging with training for virtual instruction. On Friday, Garn Christensen, the district’s superintendent, announced the school year would proceed on schedule.

“I anticipate a few bumps in the first week or two of school,” he wrote to families. “This is because some of the upgrades we initiated early summer to improve our ability to communicate and deliver technology in preparation for a possible remote start have not gone as smoothly as hoped and parts and equipment have been delayed.”

Districts Turn to Short-Term Solutions

Schools nationwide are facing a financial crisis as state and local budgets dwindle during the ongoing economic downturn. Congress has failed after months of negotiations to pass a new relief bill that would include billions of dollars for school districts. More than three-quarters of D.C. insiders surveyed recently said they believe federal relief won’t be passed until the end of September.

Some of those funds would go towards more permanent solutions to address the reality that 15 million students and as many as 400,000 U.S. teachers lack a reliable Internet connection at home. Without broader relief, districts have turned to a variety of short-term solutions: ordering hotspot devices students can use in their homes; partnering with local businesses to offer internet access; and negotiating temporarily reduced rates with internet service providers in the area.

The rural Mountain Empire district in California serves 3,900 students, including residents of three Native American tribal reservations. Seventy percent of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 30 percent are English-language learners.

In the next few weeks, the district will receive 150 hotspots for families who have broadband connectivity where they live but can’t afford to pay for service on their own, according to district superintendent Kathy Granger.

The district is also searching for a cellular hub that would serve several rural mobile home communities, and the county’s education office is negotiating with local satellite service providers to extend access. “Adequate service through them will not be available for several months,” Granger said. In the meantime, 5 percent of the district’s students are starting the year with independent study or homeschooling; roughly half of those students don’t have the option to learn virtually at home, Granger said.

Others have turned to more drastic action.

The city of Chicago has pledged to pay for up to four years of internet service at home for as many as 100,000 K-12 students, using a combination of public and philanthropic funds. After teachers and parents protested outside Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia this summer, the city announced that 35,000 low-income families will receive internet access either through a Comcast program or via a T-Mobile hotspot.

McClellan said the NAACP’s advocacy on this issue began in March when the organization’s clients on several school desegregation cases reported that their students weren’t able to access education from home.

The organization wrote a letter last month to 20 internet service providers in areas that serve large numbers of people of color, urging them to offer free Internet access to students for the entire school year; expand broadband infrastructure in currently underserved areas; and widely advertise internet access opportunities schools and students can use.

“This is obviously one thing they can concretely do that would have a huge impact on the ongoing institutional inequalities based on race,” McClellan said.

The organization’s short-term goal is to identify public-private partnerships that will shrink the number of households without access to broadband service.

Building networks in rural areas, though, will take a more sustained commitment and federal support, McClellan said. “We can’t just keep having this model of school districts or of local government agencies having to bid against each other” for devices, she said.

Tech Access Is ‘Moral Imperative’

The pandemic has accelerated some districts’ ongoing technology efforts.

Thompson said San Antonio schools’ five-year plan to give every student a device transformed overnight into a three-week plan. Teachers and tech coaches now recognize firsthand the value of developing specific expertise around online teaching, rather than simply translating classroom teaching skills to the virtual environment.

In the early 2000s, when Wilson was helping direct the state of Michigan’s 1-to-1 device initiative for K-12 schools, she frequently found superintendents who didn’t want to spend on technology because “they thought it might be frivolous.” Now, she says, “we’ve come full circle to where it’s a moral imperative.”

The value of engaging students remotely during the pandemic, despite the challenges of executing it effectively and equitably, can’t be overstated.

On one of the first days “back to school” in Indianapolis, Cowger popped in virtually to a 7th grade math class, and found herself tearing up at the excitement of the students and the enthusiasm of the teacher.

“It was, in some ways, so heartbreaking to watch adolescent kids have to create their personal connections through technology,” Cowger said. “Their little lit-up faces were so excited to dig into math and learn how to engage virtually with a whiteboard. That’s going to continue to be where we need to find the joy of teaching and learning.”

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week