While many of the state’s students settle into new routines of remote learning, thousands still don’t have the devices or connectivity they need to learn online. That’s unacceptable.
Basic education is the constitutional right of every child in Washington. When students don’t have the essential tools for learning — regardless of whether public school instruction happens remotely, in traditional classrooms or some shifting combination of the two — that right is compromised.
Even though school districts and state leaders have had months to prepare for this unusual fall semester, somewhere between 12 and 21% of Washington K-12 students still do not have the technology or internet connectivity required for remote learning, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction estimates.
The greatest shortcoming is in access to broadband. State officials estimate that only about 78% of students had consistent access to a reliable internet connection last spring. This fall, that number is a mere 83%.
About 6% still need learning devices like tablets or laptop computers. That’s a big improvement over March, when only about two-thirds of the state’s students had access to a device. Still, 6% is too many.
These figures are only estimates. OSPI created them by combining data from a number of sources, including district reopening plans, an August digital access survey and surveys conducted last spring.
Philanthropy, private business and other community partners have stepped in to help close the technology gap for Washington students. All In Washington is raising funds to help close the digital divide and support remote learning. It was kickstarted by a $1.25 million pledge from Microsoft. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has vowed to match individual donations to this digital equity initiative up to $1 million per unique donor. This admirable effort is sure to make a difference in the coming weeks.
But what about the longer term? The pandemic has clearly shown that student access to technology is essential, not a luxury. As such, it calls for a sustainable, secure source of funding — no small task during these uncertain times.
And as districts are learning, remote online instruction is about more than distributing laptops and wifi hotspots. It requires ongoing support and systemwide change. This makes a new grant-funded position in Seattle Public Schools worth watching. Tableau Foundation has provided the $200,000 grant to fund the new digital equity manager, who will be charged both with identifying and aligning resources to meet immediate needs and identifying long-term, systemic improvements to make remote online learning a reality for every student in the district.
If this position works as intended, crossing classroom and building boundaries to connect each student to remote learning, it could be a model for other districts in ensuring remote instruction isn’t leaving some kids behind.