Since COVID-19 first shut down in-person learning, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has distributed devices and internet for thousands of students. But for months, district officials haven’t be able to answer these questions with certainty:
How many kids actually need the technology? And does it work well enough to meet remote learning demands?
They’re questions central to conducting school online and closing digital access and learning gaps, especially for Seattle, whose schools appear to be staying remote for the foreseeable future.
But after school buildings closed last spring, Seattle and other districts didn’t take complete stock of how many students needed devices and internet, instead relying on student poverty rates and drawing estimates from surveys. As a result, data on technology access for students during the pandemic has been spotty.
About 4,000 of SPS’ over 50,000 students haven’t been engaging regularly with online learning this fall, half of whom the district suspects are having issues with devices or connectivity, according to district spokesperson Tim Robinson.
In some cases, the lack of firm information has made estimating the appropriate response to the problem harder and more time-consuming, especially when it comes to internet connectivity. And the main solution offered by school districts — discounted or free plans offered by internet service providers — sometimes results in internet access too slow to handle multiple kids learning online at the same time, according to industry guidelines.
The most comprehensive statewide effort to get clarity on student tech needs — voluntary state surveys of school districts in May and August — only requested estimates. Based on the answers it received, the state education department projects that between 81% to 89% of Washington state students had adequate technology and connectivity for remote learning.
“Some districts did a good job of collecting data and provided some reasonable estimates,” said Deb Came, superintendent of assessment and student information at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), but not all of them did.
“I wouldn’t put a whole lot of precision on it,” she said.
SPS, in response to the August survey, estimated about 16% of students either lacked internet access or didn’t have adequate internet access for remote learning. The district based these estimates on surveys of families. But other surveys taken by the city and county have found that up to 98% of families with SPS children have internet access. The variation between the district’s own surveys and those of other government agencies makes it hard to settle on a reliable dataset, according to a city report.
“Tracking the actual number of Seattle schools’ students needing internet and devices has been challenging and brought to light that there has not been a structure in place to ensure this is collected for every student,” the report says.
This fall, district employees began checking in with every student, but the district has not released data gleaned from those check-ins in response to requests from The Seattle Times.
“We are working with all our building leaders to make sure identifiable gaps are determined and reported to the central office so we can work toward solutions,” Robinson wrote in an email.
To date, the district has issued 3,253 hotspots and internet access codes to families, according to a recent Seattle School Board presentation, sometimes giving multiple connections to families with multiple kids. The district estimated in August, per the numbers it sent to OSPI, that more than 8,000 students did not have adequate internet access. Roughly 43,000 students have picked up laptops or iPads, which amounts to about 79% of the district’s enrollment.
Why the data vary
For most school systems, checking in with every student wasn’t necessary to gauge the number of computer devices they needed to order. Many planned to buy one for every student anyway, to keep things simpler. A few weeks ago, SPS announced it had finally secured a device for every student.
But districts haven’t taken the same one-to-one approach to internet and information on internet access among kids and families. That’s partially because in a remote learning environment, it’s not only an issue of whether a student has internet access, but how good that connection is — which makes addressing the need much more complicated. It’s much more nuanced than a binary question of whether someone does or does not have a device to learn on.
“The uniqueness of this new framework of remote learning, with all the new components that go into remote learning, presents a challenge that our staff continually rises to meet in order to find the best solutions in the most efficient time frame,” Robinson said.
Family situations can also change, and districts had to reevaluate this fall after getting a new crop of students, said Dennis Small, educational technology director at OSPI.
The start of school brought outpouring of reports from around the region about inadequate service from district-provided internet hotspots or bandwidth too weak to support several people in a household logging on to learning platforms at the same time.
The best estimate from state officials, based on data from May, is that 81% of Washington students have internet access adequate enough to support online instruction. More than 94% of them started the school year online.
To get a general sense of demand earlier on, districts like Seattle relied upon a handful of online surveys they had sent to families since last spring. They began by acquiring hotspots for students living in shelters or transitional housing.
It was only when this school year started that Seattle school employees began a formal and exhaustive “tech check” process.
At Concord International Elementary School, a Title I school in the city’s South Park neighborhood, that meant some students had devices before they had internet.
“My personal opinion: They could have used the summer as a good data collection (opportunity), and they did it at the very end,” said Paulina Lopez, a parent of a second grader at Concord who serves on the board of the school’s PTSA.
Assessing students’ needs is time-consuming and hard: School districts have long struggled to communicate with low-income families and sometimes rely on forms of contact that involve, well, the internet. And even with reliable internet access and a device, parents and students still often require assistance with learning software, said Lopez.
This year, SPS designated certain schools as tech support hubs. The district also offers a tech support hotline.
Responding to the gaps
Thus far, school districts and the state government have mostly addressed connectivity issues by contracting with internet service providers such as Comcast to purchase internet access for families. On Thursday, OSPI launched a statewide program that’s intended to serve about 60,000 students using $8.8 million from federal CARES Act relief package. The agency is paying three companies — Comcast, Ziply Fiber and Presidio — to expand access to free internet plans.
This approach has some limitations. Even if the district pays, the onus often falls on families to sign up for the service, which can be challenging if there is a language barrier.
And the internet speeds offered in discounted and free programs, including those in contracts Seattle Public Schools has with internet service providers, are sometimes too slow. Broadband Now, a consumer broadband research site, recommends a speed of 40 to 100 megabits per second to juggle multiple kids videoconferencing at the same time. But the free options offered by the state and school districts are around 25 megabits per second.
This has forced districts to buy supplemental hotspots for families with many people working on the same network, or Wi-Fi “repeaters” to help connection carry through several rooms, said David Keyes, digital equity program manager for the City of Seattle. Local and state governments have been trying to apply pressure on internet service providers to offer faster speeds at more affordable prices.
Seattle is also gearing up to launch a plan to help service internet gaps. A recent report estimated about 5% of the city did not have access to the internet. The main reason cited was affordability, not a lack of broadband or cellular tower coverage — big barriers that other parts of the state are facing. In Yakima, school district officials plan to broadcast Wi-Fi throughout the city.
Seattle is pondering ways to encourage more competition and a range of internet service providers, said Keyes.
There’s also been a growing call around the country to invest in universal broadband and stop local governments from leaning on businesses, including from local superintendents such as SPS’ Denise Juneau.
“We will continue to make sure that our students can access lessons remotely this fall,” she said in a virtual town hall last month. “But we must also demand that our country’s leadership step up and provide broadband for all as a public utility.”