National

Schools, Parents Scramble to Overcome Digital Divide

American Rescue Plan Offers Funds, Solutions

Different approaches to learning have been used during the past year to ensure children keep up with the curriculum. Distance learning became the norm. Then hybrid methods were combined distance learning and in-classroom teaching. To make it work, training has been necessary for school administrators, teachers, parents, and children.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) recently convened a virtual panel of educators to take aim on education needs during the pandemic. Right after the pandemic began, Van Hollen met with school educators throughout the state to discuss making high-speed internet, a priority for online learning.

“We wanted to make sure we connect all our students who did not have internet access,” said Van Hollen who had introduced legislation to close the homework gap due to the lack of internet access. “The homework gap became a full-blown learning gap for students who could not connect with their classrooms when the pandemic hit.”

Broadband Access is the Key

Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) purchased 65,000 Chromebooks to ensure all students had a laptop if needed.

“Internet connectivity has been a big challenge. We have supported over 15,000 students with internet and hotspot services,” said Andrew Zuckerman, chief information and technology officer for PGCPS and a panelist on Van Hollen’s virtual discussion. “Federal grant funding allowed us to do that.”

Under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), Maryland will benefit from $7.1 billion in ARPA money to update the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) E-Rate program, the country’s largest education technology program for school and library internet connection. Another $2.6 billion nationwide in state grants in the ARPA supports K-12 students with disabilities.

ARPA funds will allow PGCPS to extend the support for broadband access that came through the 2020 Cares Act. Strengthening the education experience for teachers, students and parents is the objective.

A Juggling Act

Upper Marlboro, Md., resident Camille Reed is a parent who had to “turn on a dime” to get systems in place for her two children in the PGCPS system. Her son Charles is at Kenmoor Middle School in Landover, Md., and daughter Olivia is at Perrywood Elementary School in Largo, Md. Early during the pandemic, each of her kids received laptops from their schools. Both of Reed’s children are in an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a special needs program at their respective schools.

That meant not only managing distance learning for Charles and Olivia, but also handling virtual conferences with teachers and specialists. Getting oriented to the virtual experience was necessary.

“Parents were directed to technology assistance,” said Reed. “It was literally throwing everyone in the water and figuring it out.” There were some basic skills that had not been considered by anyone. “My kids had to switch to an all-typing mode which is not something elementary and middle school kids are used to doing. That’s different than before the pandemic where kids that age only went to the school computer lab from time to time.”

Reed also had to plan to address her 69-year-old mother’s caregiving needs. As a business owner, she also had to figure out how to ensure her natural hair salon survived. Located in downtown Silver Spring, her 15-year-old enterprise, named Noire Salon, was forced to shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. Fortunately, Reed qualified for a COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) through the Small Business Administration (SBA) to bridge the gap between shutdown and reopening May 1, 2020, under strict guidelines established for Maryland. She also received the stimulus payment through the Cares Act.

Reed’s situation is labeled by demographers as an example of how what they call the “sandwich generation” is handling care for an aging parent while nurturing her children. She co-parents Charles and Olivia with her ex-husband Jonathan. Coordinating schedules has been the key. When the fall semester started in September 2020, Reed realized something different about scheduling.

Return to Normal

“Early during the pandemic, the school day was shorter, about three to four hours because we all were adjusting,” said Reed. “When the 2020-2021 school year began, everyone was working to get back to a near-normal school schedule. That meant a longer school day of a little more than six hours.”

As Zuckerman shared on the Van Hollen panel an assessment of what needs to be considered for how to successfully manage hybrid instruction and post-pandemic teaching. He said schools need to reimagine what technology support looks like. Technology assets at home are critically important to education success.

“Pivoting on a dime to support our students on a large scale has been challenging,” said Zuckerman. “The load on the network has to be considered like the importance of cybersecurity. Federal funding can help strengthen our infrastructure, not just internet speed, but making sure we have a safe and secure network for our children.”

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