How the Federal Government Can Help Meet Technology Needs

An engineer in Guilford County Schools in North Carolina tests the Wi-Fi signal after installing new equipment.

Despite education leaders’ concerted efforts to provide technology, massive needs remain. As part of our broader advocacy efforts, we have outlined important steps the federal government and others can take now, and have called for sweeping changes for the long term. 

Specifically, we are pushing for additional federal funding for technology and connectivity and have urged the White House and telecommunications companies to remove obstacles that prevent students from learning while they are away from school. Our CEO, Mike Magee, raised the issue on a call with Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. We also sent letters to Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and America’s largest telecommunications companies

More than 700 companies signed the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge to temporarily waive late fees, maintain service for customers facing financial hardship, and open Wi-Fi hotspots to those who need them. After hearing from our members, we raised another important and related issue: Companies often require individuals to pay off an outstanding balance on their account in order to reconnect to the internet. As such, even in instances where districts can provide devices to their students, many children are unable to use that technology because they can’t get online. Our letter to Chairman Pai asks the FCC to amend its pledge and have companies make the additional commitment to suspend policies that require people to pay off outstanding balances to restore service. Our letter to telecommunications companies implores them to immediately discontinue all policies that keep families with school-age children from obtaining service in the midst of the national emergency. 

In addition, we urge the FCC to allow districts to use federal E-Rate funds, traditionally reserved for schools and libraries, to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots that can be loaned to students as well as for other innovative strategies for expanding home internet.

The coronavirus pandemic has made obvious to the broader public what many in education have long known: In today’s world, access to the internet is a necessity—it is not a luxury simply for those who can afford it. Our board chair, Pedro Martinez, wrote an op-ed calling for federal and state governments to partner on a grand initiative to expand broadband access to every home in America. 

Distance Learning

This section was posted April 15. It has been archived, as it covers the work that systems did to transition to distance learning in spring 2020. To learn what systems are doing to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year, see these sections above: Reopening in the Fall, Congressional Testimony, and Support and Recommendations for Education Systems.

Unwilling to accept months of lost learning time for students, districts and state education departments are working to help children stay connected to their schools and shift to a distance learning model and remote instruction. While there are districts within our membership that already had some digital curriculum in place, other systems are not as far along. Regardless, this unanticipated and complex transition involves many aspects and tremendous collaborative effort, including:  
  • Creating coursework for new platforms and a variety of formats. Due to the digital divide, all districts are offering paper learning packets with assignments for each subject and grade. Like many systems, Cleveland Metropolitan School District streamlined the distribution of resources by making learning packets available at food pickup sites. Some districts provided backpacks with books, learning materials, and supplies for students who do not have access to technology. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Education and several other systems have partnered with cable access and public television stations to air educational content each day. In many cases, the programming is available in English and Spanish.
    In areas where devices and internet connectivity are available, districts are providing instruction online through an array of methods such as virtual classroom meetings and lectures; prerecorded video lessons; and aligned readings, multimedia, and assignments. A number of systems have established sites that offer a central location for students to watch weekly messages, submit their work, attend virtual field trips, and participate in STEM challenges, among other things. Stockton Unified School District in California took its recently implemented curriculum and converted instructional materials into a digital format. In some systems, the most experienced or effective teachers in a subject or grade are developing and delivering lessons across multiple virtual classrooms, while their colleagues provide one-on-one assistance and small group instruction. 
  • Training and supporting staff to teach remotely. Districts swiftly began training teachers in how to use online platforms and resources and provide remote instruction to their students. Given staff members’ varying levels of technological proficiency and the challenge of training so many people on such a short timeline, some districts are letting teachers decide how to support their students. Teachers who prefer a low-tech approach might answer calls on a homework hotline, for example, while others work with students over FaceTime or lead classroom discussions on Zoom. Colorado, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Ohio are among the states where the departments of education have created resource hubs to help educators in the transition to distance learning. Alaska also set up a platform for educators to share ideas with each other. 
  • Providing services for students with disabilities and English learners. Our chiefs are committed, to the best of their ability and capacity, to serving all students—including those with disabilities and English learners—during the crisis. Districts are taking a number of steps to ensure their most vulnerable students have the supports they need while they are away from school. Special education teachers in Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Colorado, for example, met to determine needs, service provider availability, and resources for students based on their Individualized Education Programs. Whenever possible, for remote services, BVSD is pairing students with specialists children already know from school. The district also worked to identify high-quality virtual programs, such as video conferencing platforms where the language translation and closed captioning are most clear, and created a collection of resources for parents and caregivers. In some systems, physical therapists record activities that families can do at home and the district posts and shares those videos through a virtual library. Some districts, like Denver Public Schools, are partnering with local advocacy groups to get their input on how to most effectively serve students with disabilities through distance learning. 
  • Grading. Districts across our membership are making complicated decisions about how to adjust grading procedures so they are fair but still motivate students to fully engage in distance learning. Many districts have transitioned to pass/fail grading systems for the fourth quarter. While content will continue to be delivered, systems will rely on a student’s cumulative score at the end of the third quarter or when schools closed. Teachers are using online platforms to track attendance and course engagement. Many districts are not penalizing students who are unable to complete their coursework. In a number of cases, teachers are also holding virtual office hours and finding other ways to provide feedback on assignments.
  • Long-term planning for educational recovery. Even with sound distance learning plans, sudden and extended school closures will inevitably hinder student achievement. Baltimore City Public Schools is among the districts that is queueing up additional student supports that will be available once the area moves beyond its peak COVID-19 response. A number of our members are already developing re-entry strategies and curriculum. Leaders are planning for how to address lost learning and accelerate progress, whether through intensive summer programs, extended school calendars, robust tutoring initiatives, or other interventions.