Special Report
IT Infrastructure

The Big Pandemic Tech Challenge: Reliable, High-Quality Internet Experiences for All

By Mark Lieberman — March 10, 2021 12 min read
A team of people build a path across the digital divide.
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On paper, Katlyn has everything she needs to do remote learning: a school-issued device and working internet service in her home. But the reality is less rosy.

The problems for Katlyn Atwood’s family began in March, when she was finishing 8th grade from her home in suburban Baltimore at the same time as her brother was in virtual 12th grade.

On a few occasions, Katlyn said, she had to strain to move from one part of her bedroom to the other so her classmates couldn’t hear her brother on his school call in the next room.

Sometimes, they would both be on a video call at the same time, so the internet would get overloaded and shut down. Other times, one student’s Wi-Fi worked fine while the other’s languished.

One day, Katlyn’s computer audio cut out, but she could still see her teacher on the screen. She called another student in the class, and listened to the teacher talk through the phone.

“I got a lot of phone calls at work,” said Michelle Atwood, Katlyn’s mother. “‘Mom, I can’t get on the internet. Mom, what should I do? Mom, you need to come home and get my computer and take it back to school.’”

The Atwood family’s experience exemplifies the multifaceted challenges of tackling the digital divide, as many politicians and institutions have pledged to do since the pandemic highlighted the need for broader at-home connectivity in the United States.

The first step to ensuring students can successfully engage in learning from home is providing them with the technology tools they need to connect.

But simply providing a student with a device and ensuring an internet connection at home isn’t enough to bridge the gap between students who are fully connected and those who fall behind through no fault of their own.

The problems Katlyn experienced will be familiar to millions of students nationwide—and to the school employees who have been struggling to help.

“It was re-architecting the entire way that we provide support to students and staff in a short amount of time without a lot of opportunity to test the process,” said Jim Corns, executive director of information technology for the Baltimore County school district in Maryland, which Katlyn attends.

Nailing down the precise number of students who still lack adequate technology access for at-home learning remains a challenge. Federal data on the number of U.S. households that lack broadband access are widely regarded by broadband experts as underestimates. The effect of the last year’s concerted efforts to close the digital divide has yet to be fully quantified.

I don’t think if you had written a science fiction talking about this, you could have hit this many ways to make this difficult.

Some encouraging signs have emerged. Public-private partnerships in numerous states have offered digital devices, broadband connections, and Wi-Fi hotspots to thousands of families in need. The new acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission is a longtime advocate for using the agency’s powers to help close the so-called homework gap, the divide between students who have the technology necessary to do schoolwork at home and those who don’t. Officials in several states, including Texas and Connecticut, have said recently that all K-12 students now have a school-issued digital device, thanks in part to swift allocation of federal relief funds.

Throughout the pandemic, especially in the early months, schools were hamstrung by supply chain issues that delayed shipment of digital devices for months, staffing shortages as the pandemic wreaked havoc on families nationwide, and unforeseen challenges that tested all of their previously established processes for delivering instruction.

“I don’t think if you had written a science fiction talking about this, you could have hit this many ways to make this difficult,” Corns said.

Mark Wheeler, chief information officer for the city of Philadelphia, has been working to get all K-12 students in the city connected to affordable broadband service during the pandemic and beyond. He believes closing the digital divide requires three steps:

  1. Ensuring that broadband is “no different from electricity or water”;
  2. Ensuring that people know how to take advantage of the connectivity they have;
  3. Providing continuing support and resources to families to leverage the opportunities of connectivity and access.

This framework could serve as a model for the broader project of ensuring equitable technology access for children like Katlyn, for whom the basics aren’t sufficient, and for the millions of children in marginalized groups whose education experience during the pandemic has been woefully inferior to that of their peers.

“We need to make sure folks have somebody to turn to. Who’s providing that guidance on how to be safe online? Who’s providing the tech support to even set it up?” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “In some communities, nonprofits and libraries have stepped into that role, but in some communities there’s nobody in that role.”

Internet outages and device glitches cause headaches

Last fall, at the start of the school year, Katlyn Atwood’s high school eventually provided her with a laptop that worked.

But the relief from those issues at the start of 9th grade was short-lived. On Nov. 25, a ransomware attacker breached the servers of her district, forcing remote instruction for Katlyn and 113,000 other students to shut down for three school days, one before and two after the Thanksgiving holiday break.

Before school could resume, district leaders had to make sure that students weren’t using devices that had been corrupted. So Michelle Atwood drove to school and picked up yet another new laptop.

The only problem: It lacked several crucial apps Katlyn needed to complete her schoolwork. She exchanged the computer again, but the replacement device had the same problem.

Instead, Katlyn has been using her personal computer, which meant downloading a slew of programs and applications, including some that she had to buy herself.

It’s no surprise, then, that Katlyn isn’t especially enamored with remote learning.

“I don’t think there’s anything that I liked about it,” she said. “I feel like there was more work on us.”

Katlyn’s remote learning challenges have been a strain on the family as well.

Michelle works the morning shift six days a week at a grocery store. “The internet companies need to get more on the ball with what’s going on,” she said.

She hasn’t minded being interrupted at work, she said, as much as the challenges with getting IT help from her children’s school.

She’s tried emailing and calling at different times of the day, sitting on hold for as much as half an hour before the line automatically disconnects. The only way to get the school’s attention, she said, is to contact the administration directly. “I’m on a first-name basis with the assistant principal at the high school,” she said.

Michelle knows everyone at the school is trying their best. On the first day of the new school year, Katlyn couldn’t get onto Google Meet, and Michelle couldn’t reach the tech support office. She called Katlyn’s adviser, who was able to set up a three-way call with IT.

Still, the solutions sometimes rankle her. Once last fall, a school tech support representative told Michelle that her son could have given his fully functioning school-issued computer to Katlyn when he graduated last spring. But at the time, her son had been required to return his device as a condition for receiving his diploma.

“If that was an option, I would have done it,” Michelle said.

IT departments had to reinvent the wheel

Prior to the pandemic, the IT department at Baltimore County Public Schools served mainly to help students and teachers when their technology didn’t work the way they expected or wanted it to. Library media specialists, technology liaisons, and other school employees in the building helped with these issues as they arose.

Once school buildings shut down, though, the IT department’s purview had to expand, even as the number of people who could pitch in and help as needed shrunk. The team had to develop new procedures for fixing bugs and glitches on devices from afar, and had to field a barrage of questions from students, parents, and teachers trying to make sense of devices and programs they had never used before.

All of those concerns had to be routed through a central districtwide help desk, which made the experience of an individual student from a particular school trying to get help far more cumbersome than usual.

On top of all that, IT team members were also dealing with the emotional and physical stress of the pandemic.

“We’ve tried to spend a lot of extra time in meetings celebrating wins when we have them, reassuring each other, trying to do pair-ups for check-ins,” Corns said.

The biggest factor outside the district’s control, Corns said, has been the massive uphill battle to get enough digital devices for all students, and to obtain enough reserves that devices that stop working can be replaced. One parent brought back a device with a keyboard that melted in the sun; another person’s dog shattered the screen.

“Whether it was a manufacturer issue or a software issue or accidental damage, that student has the same issue—they can no longer access learning,” Corns said.

Even getting devices in the hands of students was much harder than it was during pre-pandemic times. Delivering 35,000 Chromebooks to the district’s elementary school students meant going into school buildings, packing devices into individual boxes, and shipping them via FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service.

Then, in November, Corns and his team undertook a “Herculean effort” to scrutinize and update devices that might have been breached, and to assure families that using school-issued technology was safe once instruction resumed.

Through it all, Corns said, empathy for students has been a driving force. Corns is a former 3rd grade teacher, and he’s been moved to see his colleagues do everything they can to help students learn. “When you factor in all of the external pressures, I think that they’ve risen to the challenge,” he said.

Nuanced solutions are necessary to tackle nuanced problems

Advocates for high-quality online learning have raised concerns throughout the pandemic that many families’ subpar experience with that instructional model will make them less likely to support even a much-improved version of it down the road. Even so, slightly more than two-thirds of teachers, principals, and district leaders believe schools are likely to continue offering far more remote learning options to students after the pandemic than they did before it, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in February.

That means schools need to be working harder to provide students with all of the technology tools they need to succeed, as well as the skills necessary to take advantage of those tools, said Adam Garry, senior director of education strategies for the technology company Dell.

In his work helping school districts upgrade technology during the pandemic, Garry has seen firsthand the challenges of assuming that the technology tool on its own means the underlying problem is solved. Among other initiatives, his team has helped districts roll out Wi-Fi hotspots to supplement connectivity for families who lack it.

“There’s a higher percentage than you would think of devices that went home that were never turned on, the data was never even used,” Garry said. “Are those students not learning? What actually happened there?”

See Also

In Philadelphia, Wheeler and his team have confronted the nuances of providing families with technology. The city’s infrastructure allows for households to take advantage of broadband options, he said, but affordability and logistics pose obstacles.

Some families use smartphones as their primary device for accessing the internet, but those devices struggle under the weight of two or three children learning remotely in the same household. In some immigrant communities, households include multiple families, or children need to move from one home to another during the day.

In many cases, families are paying for internet service currently but are at risk of being unable to afford it or needing to prioritize other essential bills. And the mistrust for government initiatives contributes to the problem, because some families are wary of signing up for help.

A one-size-fits-all program would never reach its intended goal, Wheeler said.

Still, “when the will is there, government can act very, very quickly and put together programs that are thoughtfully structured to be effective and sustainable,” he said.

Wishing for more empathy from educators

Remote learning hasn’t been all bad for Katlyn—she’s managed to eke out good grades across the board, and she’s been able to shuttle back and forth between her mom in Catonsville, Md., and her dad 40 miles away in neighboring Harford County without having to miss school.

But it has been a bumpy virtual ride. Learning the intricacies of new apps and platforms for receiving instruction was challenging, Katlyn said. The screen on her school-issued device was too small to accommodate the two or three programs teachers at times expected her to have open simultaneously.

In her experience, teachers started to lose patience when students like her were struggling to connect.

“At the beginning, the first couple weeks they were understanding,” she said. “After a while, they kept telling us we need to go get it fixed, ‘This has been happening for a while.’”

When the tech doesn’t work for the day, she has no choice but to miss class, even when she wants to be there and keep up with her lessons. Learning Spanish remotely has been particularly hard with all the tech disruptions.

She’s been frustrated because she’s been trying as hard as she can to keep up with her schoolwork.

“I feel like the teachers don’t understand how much it’s putting on the kids trying to get all the work done and trying to show up to class on time,” she said. “There’s these kids that don’t care about online, they purposely come in class to interrupt. That also takes away from us learning.”

Katlyn is excited to return to her school building later this month, but not so excited about having to continue videoconferencing from there.

“Since they told us we’re basically going to be doing the same thing we’re doing at home but in the school building, I’m not really looking forward to it,” she said.

Corns sees a silver lining in the turmoil, though. When instruction gets closer to normal, he believes his team is ready to implement processes that will make its work more efficient and valuable. For instance, “instead of having to be face to face with a kid who needs a setting changed [on their device], my staff is now able to remote in with that student’s permission and allow us to do that support,” Corns said.

He envisions a future that gets closer to using technology to serve each student’s individual needs.

“We’ve talked about doing personalized learning as a buzzword for years,” he said. Now, with so many lessons learned over a period of great suffering, he thinks it might just be possible.

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