Classroom Technology

Why Students Still Can’t Access Remote Learning: How Schools Can Help

By Mark Lieberman — September 15, 2020 8 min read
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A familiar refrain from the spring has returned: Thousands of students aren’t showing up for remote learning as a new school year begins, and schools are continuing to scramble for short- and long-term solutions.

As of Sept. 2, 73 percent of the 100 largest U.S. school districts had chosen remote learning only as their back-to-school instructional model, affecting more than 8 million students, according to Education Week’s school reopenings database. Many more districts are offering hybrid instruction, a mix of in-person and online learning.

More than 3,600 public school students in Cincinnati have been missing from virtual learning so far. Schools in Flint, Mich., are tracking down hundreds of students who weren’t showing up for virtual instruction. More than 40,000 students were missing during Houston’s first week of fully remote instruction. And many of New York City’s 114,000 students living in shelters or doubling up with family and friends are experiencing difficulty logging on as they get ready for school to start next week.

What accounts for all these missing students? Many still lack the basic technology they need at home to access virtual school.

Thousands of laptops are on back order due to supply chain shortages and federal government-imposed sanctions on Chinese computer manufacturers that have used child slave labor.

The country’s response to millions of students’ lack of home internet access, meanwhile, has been chaotic and patchwork, with school districts, states, private companies, and the federal government offering some relief while falling short of a comprehensive nationwide solution. In West Virginia, for instance, schools are using grant funds to purchase hotspots because between 30 and 50 percent of the state’s students don’t have internet access at home, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The tech shortages prompted some districts, including Pittsburgh and Greensburg Salem in Pennsylvania, to push back the first day of school from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8. Others have forged ahead, supplementing virtual instruction with paper packets and face-to-face opportunities.

For some schools, getting students connected isn’t as simple as distributing devices and hotspots. The Augusta district in Maine is unable to hand out more than 5,000 Chromebooks sitting in storage because of a licensing glitch between the vendor and Google, the Kennebec Journal reported.

In Cleveland, district officials last month told school board members that many students with home internet access still can’t access learning opportunities because their download speeds can’t accommodate the heavy data load. The local internet provider Cincinnati Bell has partnered with the district to offer free internet to all students, but families have to jump through several logistical hoops before they can access the service, district officials said.

Months of disrupted school experiences and persistent tech inequities threaten to leave students from low-income families, students of color, and rural students at a steep disadvantage. The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund has described its advocacy for getting students connected as “school desegregation work.”

“It’s one of those problems that we have known was an equity issue since way before COVID,” said Elizabeth LeBlanc, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Institute for Teaching and Leading, and the curriculum and data coordinator for the Taos Academy Charter School in New Mexico. “Really it was just a collective failure of will to resolve it while the stakes were lower. Now the stakes are higher and we’re really behind.”

Here’s how four districts are working to keep students learning despite the challenges and complications.

Denver: Identifying Needs and Redistributing Resources

In July, Denver school district officials began notifying districts in the state and nationwide that many digital devices likely wouldn’t be available until well into the fall. Denver’s schools were “potentially up to 6,000 devices” short, said Amber Elias, the district’s lead operation superintendent.

During the first week of school, school leaders urged families to return any school-issued devices they didn’t need, particularly if they already had working personal devices they could use instead. The district also established a “buy-back program,” reimbursing individual schools for devices they had purchased this spring before the district took over laptop acquisition efforts, and then carefully redistributing those devices to families who needed them most.

“We had to make sure families that had been issued devices for learning weren’t feeling pressure to turn devices back in or share devices across students,” Elias said.

Virtual attendance in the district was around 90 percent late last week, a district spokesperson said.

Elias said she’s hopeful that more live virtual instruction and fewer confusing technology platforms this school year will mark an improvement over the chaos of the spring. The district has also developed a more sophisticated attendance tracking system that will highlight daily attendance rates among specific student groups, “so that we continue to understand who is accessing remote learning and who is not.”

When the 6,000 devices eventually arrive, they’ll serve as useful backups, Elias said: “We’re going to need a natural stock in the building of devices [for students] who may forget their device at home.”

Brea Olinda, Calif.: Bringing Students to School, and School to Students

When the Brea Olinda district in northern Orange County, Calif., shut down in March, about 1,000 device requests came in from among the district’s 6,000 students. Those numbers slowly crept up as the long-term reality of distance learning set in, said Kerrie Torres, the district’s superintendent.

The district has now distributed 1,700 Chromebooks and 150 hotspots. The latter have been particularly useful for low-income families and households with as many as six or seven children sharing the connection, Torres said.

The district’s proximity to a canyon means some families can’t access the internet at home whether they have a hotspot or not, even on a smartphone. Some students have made arrangements with the district to do virtual school, including Zoom meetings, outside on campus during the school day, supervised by a teacher or principal who can give them help and answer questions.

But not all families have the time or means to transport their students to the school building each day. To keep them from falling behind, the district is planning to take advantage of its state mandate to keep bus drivers employed by sending homework packets on buses to students’ homes.

Martinsville City, Va.: Hotspots Are Only a ‘Temporary Solution’

At Martinsville City schools in Virginia, 77 percent of households answered an internet access survey in July. Roughly 16 percent who responded said they either don’t have internet access or it’s not strong enough to stream live instruction.

As in the Brea district, homework packets have been filling the gap, said Steve Tatum, the district’s director of instructional technology. Tatum’s team has also helped teachers load digital content from online courses onto flash drives, which parents can pick up at the school building each week.

“Obviously, you can’t do that with a video, you can’t do a hard copy with a video, but you may be able to do a hard copy of a PowerPoint presentation,” Tatum said.

Tatum considers those measures “a temporary solution,” and believes providing working internet access is an urgent priority. This week, the district began making appointments with families to test Wi-Fi hotspots with the school’s tech team on campus so they can be sure the devices will work at home. The instructional technology team has also set up separate help desks for elementary and middle/high parents and students to call when they encounter issues.

Finding every family remains elusive, though. Some didn’t have a phone number on file with the school, or the phone number that was on file no longer works. “We had to build this airplane as we fly it,” Tatum said.

Taos, N.M.: Uniting the Community

In the rural New Mexico community of Taos, hotspots alone won’t close internet access gaps. Elizabeth LeBlanc from the Taos Academy Charter School helped establish a working group of families and community organizations that have pledged to set up or identify 100 places in the area—churches, libraries, town facilities, grocery stores, gyms—where K-12 students, regardless of which school they attend, can go for internet access.

Taos Ski Valley, a village resort that has seen fewer tourists than usual due to the pandemic, has offered its facilities for schools to set up academic support and learning labs for students. The University of New Mexico’s Taos campus has also been accommodating, LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc’s school has designed the academic year with the possibility for tech glitches in mind. Students are required to log in at least twice a day, two days a week, but “we’re not following our bell schedule, so they’re not logging in five times a day,” LeBlanc said.

More broadly, with prospects dimming for additional emergency federal funds for schools, LeBlanc is concerned about school budgets that were supplemented with CARES Act funds this summer but simultaneously faced cuts from state and local governments. Getting students technologically capable of engaging in remote instruction is of the utmost importance, she said, but schools can’t shoulder that burden on their own.

“It’s something that should be up there with food, water, and having shelter,” LeBlanc said. “It takes outside funding. It takes thinking about it in an entirely different way.”

Photo: Spencer Hollers at the Southside Independent School District in Texas works to equip buses with Wi-Fi to help students without access to the internet. (Eric Gay/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2020 edition of Education Week