Mar 7, 2020 - Technology

Virus-driven shift to online classes brings home the digital divide

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

K-12 schools weighing a shift to online learning in the shadow of the coronavirus are grappling with what to do about kids who don't have internet at home.

Why it matters: The "digital divide" between internet access haves and have-nots has long been an abstract public-policy debating point, but this public health crisis is bringing the issue home in a concrete way.

Driving the news: Schools in Washington state this week said they are preparing to offer online classes. Eleven deaths in the state have been linked to COVID-19.

  • Eastside Preparatory School, a private school system in Kirkland, said it is implementing its distance learning program for three weeks, beginning March 9.
  • Eastside Prep will buy and deliver devices to any student that needs them to participate. "The threat was genuine, and we felt that we had an ethical responsibility to take steps to stop the transmission of the virus," Head of School Terry Macaluso said in an emailed statement.
  • Northshore School District, which has more than 23,000 students in the Seattle suburbs, will transition to online learning March 9. Superintendent Michelle Reid told Axios about 2,600 families have taken the district up on its offer to loan computing devices, while fewer have sought district-provided internet hot spots.
  • "We understand not all districts are able to go to fully online learning and may not have the resources to do so," Reid said. "There is an inequity across our educational system."

Yes, but: Although individual schools and districts are hashing out plans to support online classes for students who don't have in-home broadband, it's a huge challenge to do so on a broader scale.

  • "I don’t think the schools are adequately prepared to provide online learning to all of their students at home if they have to close for a long period of time," said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. "It could be better than having no school whatsoever, but there are an awful lot of questions about how to do so fairly."

By the numbers: Estimates on the number of U.S. households with school-age children who lack home internet access range from 6 million to 7 million, according to government data.

Where it stands: The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state education agency, said in guidance to public schools that it will likely make more sense to cancel school and make up missed days than to "deploy a distance learning model that can be accessed by some, but not all, of your students."

  • Rhett Nelson, director of the Alternative Learning Department at OSPI, said he's heard from three districts in the state that are exploring online classes.
  • "The big one is the equity consideration — if you're doing this, who won't be able to access public school in that situation? It's likely going to be those students who are already at risk," Nelson said, noting that beyond technology challenges, districts should consider whether students' home lives are stable enough for online learning.

What to watch: Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has pushed to do more to close the "homework gap" faced by schoolchildren who lack home internet access, pointed to legislative efforts from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) that could help by allocating money to increasing broadband access for school kids.

  • "Those types of solutions could be tremendously valuable right now to the millions of families trying to figure out how their child can get online and get their homework done if their school closes," Rosenworcel said in a statement.
  • Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) urged FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to consider temporary measures the agency could deploy to support in-home connectivity for students if remote schoolwork becomes necessary.

Meanwhile, start-up Outschool, which provides a marketplace of online classes, has offered free training to schools trying to shift to online learning. At least 30 schools, including many in the Bay Area, have sought the assistance in the past week, CEO Amir Nathoo said.

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