Technology in Schools: Education Equity & COVID-19

June 16, 2020 | Ohio

Technology in Schools: Education Equity & COVID-19

June 16, 2020

By Tziporah Tiller and Tracy Nájera

In 2000, the reporter Bill Moyers released the documentary, Children in America’s Schools, using Ohio as a microcosm of the nation’s educational inequities. Over the last twenty years the state of Ohio made progress in terms of school facilities, building forward momentum in educational quality and what that looks like and means, and how we address factors that contribute to learning, such as social and emotional learning, behavioral health, nutrition, and safety. We are making forward progress in creating a more uniform system of public schools available to all children regardless of zip code. However, much remains to be done and even today, nearly thirty years after the historic DeRolph school funding decision in Ohio and Bill Moyer’s documentary, the quality of education in Ohio is greatly dependent on where an child lives. This is especially concerning as we consider the reality that Ohio’s 610 school districts could all be taking different approaches to learning and critical supports students need as schools reopen this fall, with the state taking only a supportive role in what this will look like. The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on our school system has made these inequities all the more critical to address because it extends beyond our schools – we are now seeing first-hand the inequities that exist in our greater society based on technology access.

COVID-19 is altering learning for millions of students and families across the country, and without adequate tools to adapt to this new learning environment, many children are in danger of being left behind. Students and their families adapted to this new mode of learning, but some are forced to do this without the necessary tools — reliable technology and internet access at home. This new reality reveals what is already commonly known — technology and internet access are not readily available to all. The accessibility of technology is limited to children and families who are lower income and this is true for children living in both rural and urban areas throughout Ohio. This technology gap means not only disparities in educational opportunities for children, but also now in terms of health access and economic opportunities for individuals and the region.

Educational Inequities Grow During Pandemic  

Nationally, inequities in learning opportunities have deepened during this health crisis. According to a study by Education Week, across the country low-income and rural students faced the most difficulty with this transition to online learning. Not surprisingly, transition challenges were concentrated in low-income areas. In schools where low-income students make up 75% or more of the student body, only 14% of teachers said they offered live instruction. While asynchronous learning has its benefits, it is also beneficial for students to have “face-to-face” interaction with their peers and teachers. Only 42% and 43% of rural and urban districts were able to provide online learning opportunities to all of their students compared to 62% of suburban districts. Furthermore, 50% of teachers in high-poverty schools and 41% of rural teachers have to distribute work in-person compared to 14% of teachers in low-poverty schools and 22% of suburban teachers.

In Ohio, we see a similar trend. In a 2018 ranking of the “worst-wired” cities, Ohio had 10 cities ranked in the worst half of the 624 cities, consisting mainly of urban areas. Rural and urban districts often have students who do not have internet or access to a computer. In Sandy Valley school district in Stark County, 14% of students do not have a computer and 25% lack access to internet. In the Cleveland Municipal school district, those percentages are 20% and 33%, respectively. Meanwhile in Shaker Heights, a district abutting Cleveland Municipal, the percentage of students who lack computer access is much lower at 8% and internet access is 13%.

Lacking the basic tools to participate in learning only exacerbates other challenges a child and their family may be facing.  In the 2017-2018 school year, 20,717 children were homeless in Ohio. Children who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity must still be able to complete their schoolwork and be full participants in school – whether online or in person. Despite technology challenges, it is not far-fetched to expect a completely online learning environment will yield higher chronic absenteeism and truancy rates throughout the state – especially given that this is new for many teachers and they are still learning how to do this.  However, no child should be deprived of their educational opportunity. A child must – at the very least – be provided with the equipment and technology access necessary to be full participants in their learning.

Education in Ohio

As of the writing of this blog, Governor DeWine and the state of Ohio has gradually started the reopening process and there is still much uncertainty on how, or if, physical school buildings will open in the fall. Acknowledging that many children and families struggled with online learning, what is being done to learn from our experiences this past spring? We know that communities across the state have come together to help their children succeed and meet basic technology needs of children and families:

  • Libraries throughout Ohio closed their physical branches; however in keeping with their charge to serve the public, they expanded their WiFi and hotspot access into their parking lots to ensure patrons have access to online resources.
  • Many schools took significant steps to bridge their students’ technology gaps. In Columbus City Schools, over 15,000 laptops were distributed to students. The district also purchased unlimited data plans and accepted hotspot donations to ensure students had the equipment and access they needed.
  • The Ohio Department of Education is curating and publishing a variety of tools and resources for teachers, parents, students, and administrators to support them as they consider what they must plan for this fall.

Action is long overdue and it should not take a pandemic and economic crisis to inspire state leaders to act in the best interest of children and their future. Ohio policymakers must act aggressively to ensure that all Ohioans have access to broadband so they can fully take advantage of educational, health, and economic opportunities – not only in this moment – but also as our state emerges from the crisis and into recovery. As we have learned from the past, not providing educational opportunity is a recipe for disaster. When it comes to our children’s futures, not providing educational opportunity is an injustice that we cannot allow to continue and we cannot allow zip code to continue to dictate destiny. We’ve learned much since the Bill Moyers documentary and it’s time to act on these lessons and do more for our children.

State & Federal Actions Taken and To Build Upon

There are promising actions being taken by the DeWine Administration, considered in the state legislature, and opportunities available at the federal level that could support these efforts, but they will take time and significant investment. Some of the recent activities include:

  • The DeWine administration made expanding access to technology in rural areas a priority through the Ohio Broadband Strategy. This initiative recognizes that over 1 million Ohioans (approximately 9% of the population) lack access to internet coverage. The goals are to improve access for individuals who are unserved and underserved.
  • House Bill 13 will create Ohio’s first ever Residential Broadband Expansion Program. The Residential Broadband Expansion Program will provide grants to offset construction cost hurdles and help facilitate the expansion of high-speed internet and all broadband services to unserved householders across Ohio with $20 million in grants.
  • At the federal level, Ohio has been slow to fully take advantage of Broadband investments and grant opportunities. The recently announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would provide over $20 billion over the next ten years to support increased connections in rural areas throughout the United States. 

What Additional Is Needed?

According to a study by Buckeye Hills Regional Council, Ohio University, Athens County Economic Development Council and the Appalachian Regional Commission, approximately $1.7 billion over ten years is needed to build Broadband capacity in the Appalachian region. Further, H.B. 13 also calls for a change in how underserved or unserved areas are identified. Current methods used massively over-count access in certain regions of the state making it appear as if a greater number of households have access than actually do in reality. In short, Ohioans need an accurate picture of Internet access, a clear plan for funding, and a timeline that prioritizes the immediate needs of our children. Connecting all Ohioans with internet and broadband access must be a priority – it’s critical for economic and education opportunity and a generation of students is depending on us to get this right.