Bridging the Digital Divide: COVID-19 keeps learning virtual as the new school year begins

iPads and laptops will be more important than ever as the new school year begins virtually. (Courtesy APS)

In the interest of student and faculty safety during the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic, Atlanta Public School (APS) students will be learning virtually for, potentially, the first nine weeks of the new school year. To bridge the digital divide, new Superintendent Lisa Herring estimates needing 6,000 to 10,000 devices for students by day one on Aug. 24.

“We take this time very seriously,” Herring said at a July 14 media roundtable.  “[APS is] working with schools on the delivery model to deploy devices and hotspots.” Herring pledged ‘to secure funding for every student to have a device” from the federal CARES Act, APS GetOurKidsConnected Program and other fundraising, as needed.

Last spring, a nationwide analysis from Boston Consulting Group and Common Sense found that 30 percent of K-12 public school students lacked adequate internet or devices, with inequities most pronounced in households with Black, Latinx and Native American students, putting these students at risk for significant learning loss.

After school staff contacted 21,000 families, APS distributed nearly 10,000 Chromebooks between March and April. Nearly all middle school students already received laptops and 4,500 hotspots through a T-Mobile partnership. First and second graders had iPads from the Tablet2Read program. That left high schoolers with the largest gap – as APS distributed at least 300 devices each to Washington, Jackson, Douglass, and Mays High School students.

“The greatest challenge, again, is connecting with families to ensure they have the devices and connectivity they need,” William Caritj, APS Chief Accountability and Information Officer.

In partnership with Comcast, APS launched the GetOurKidsConnected program, which has received more than $2 million in donations to support nearly 7,000 students for the next 12 months. The application deadline for families to apply is Sept. 30. APS will partner again with Sprint for 1,400 new hotspots.

Local school communities are also pitching with resources. The Grady High School Foundation recently purchased 120 additional Chromebooks and 35 document cameras at the request of Principal Dr. Betsy Bockman.

“We are working with the administration to determine how the Grady High School Foundation can further support virtual learning through professional development for teachers and additional technology,” said Rachel Spears, Grady High School Foundation Chair.

But devices and internet access are only effective if students and teachers use them.

“Typically, the percentage of students who logged in during any given week [last spring] ranged from 65 to 75 percent,” Caritj said, noting a greater percentage of middle and high school students logged in compared to elementary students.

APS Superintendent Lisa Herring estimates needing 6,000 to 10,000 devices for students by day one on Aug. 24.

That lack of engagement could lead to some learning loss.

“If all students in grades 3-8 had taken Milestone assessments in spring 2020, the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency would be expected to drop 3.6 points in English Language Arts and 4.9 points in Math as compared to last year,” according to the Quantifying the Impact of COVID-19 School Closures on Metro Atlanta Student Proficiency study commissioned by Learn4Life and redefinED Atlanta.

That’s why Herring is also prioritizing teacher professional development starting Aug. 3 through a   “menu of services we believe are essential to virtual learning,” such as, training led by the APS Department of Instructional Technology training and assigning each school an Educational Technology Specialist (ETS) for ongoing support.

Parents can also seek support from forthcoming digital training and resources to support virtual instruction at every grade level.

“I am a Grady Cluster parent and I also have worries and concerns,” Bockman shared. “The parent and student survey responses have helped bring concerns to the forefront. This upcoming nine-week period will be different from the last nine weeks. We can be much more proactive now, get better organized, and work to still provide the best learning experience possible.”

In a recent survey, Grady High School teachers, parents, and students consistently responded that the most important areas to improve in virtual learning were structured classes and real-time teaching. So, now the school and its APS counterparts have the opportunity to “learn from highly effective teachers, set clear standards for performance and accountability prior to Aug. 24” and widely communicate those plans and progress.

“Details are currently being worked on at all levels. Continue to be patient and reflective as we communicate our plans. I promise to keep you informed and updated,” Bockman said.

MORE INFORMATION
Apply to GetOurKidsConnected at atlantapublicschools.us/getourkidsconnected, email getourkidsconnected@apsk12.org or call (404) 802-5437 through Sept. 30. The technical support service desk phone number is (802) 404-1000. To partner/donate to APS, contact Rachel Sprecher, (404) 802-2812 or rsprecher@atlanta.k12.ga.us.

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