CSBA webinar shines a spotlight on current inequities and how to avoid future pitfalls

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, district and county office of education officials are increasingly forced to reckon with longstanding inequities related to the digital divide, and how to address student learning in the long-term.

In a Nov. 19 CSBA webinar, “Equitable Support for California Students During the COVID-19 Crisis: Strategies for School Board Members,” education practitioners and researchers shared their takes on school reopening plans, school finance, the digital divide and best practices for English learners in light of current realities.

Each panelist noted that there were already inequities in access prior to school shutdowns, and that the pandemic simply made these issues impossible to ignore. One in five students in California lacked high-speed internet or an appropriate computing device at home at the start of the pandemic, according to state leaders. And those most likely to continue going without include English learners, low-income children, homeless and foster youth, and students of color or those with disabilities.

“These are students who have already faced a lot of challenges in our existing system,” said Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation CEO Jessica Howard, citing issues related to affordability or a lack of infrastructure.

When it comes to infrastructure, for instance, local context greatly impacts the ways in which districts are able to respond to COVID. What a mobile hotspot can accomplish in some areas is very different than in others depending upon the infrastructure that is available.

“It’s really important for administrators and school board members to be aware of what the actual connectivity offered in their area is, and is it something where, as a board member, advocating for the broadband infrastructure will have a larger impact on what your rural and frontier communities will be able to do,” Howard said.

Jason Willis, area director of strategic resource planning and implementation for WestEd, agreed. Bandwidth is a really important element of the delivery of instruction now through digital learning, and both teacher and student need to have the appropriate bandwidth to handle whatever it is lessons require, he explained. Teachers and students working on a Google doc at the same time working on a writing assignment takes very little bandwidth, whereas being on video for an hour or two takes substantially more.

“When you’re thinking about the investments that the district is making to ensure that students are being reached … asking those questions about ‘what is the available bandwidth for those students?’” Willis said. “So if you’re thinking about providing a laptop to all the students, which is certainly a great step forward, you also have to think about how they are going to access the internet, and is their household bandwidth going to be sufficient to sustain that connectivity throughout the course of synchronous learning.”

English learners are in need of support, but not the kind one may think

There is no question that the pandemic had impacted all students’ ability to learn, but it is vital that educators and district leaders understand how best to meet the needs of English learners, who are likely facing a slew of additional challenges.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated some of the inequities and challenges that English learners face in accessing powerful learning opportunities that will allow them to develop content knowledge at the same time that they develop language,” said Leslie Hamburger, area director of English learners and migrant education services at WestEd.

English learners are less likely than many student groups to have computers and internet access at home, Hamburger said. They are also less likely to be familiar with accessing and navigating online learning programs, setting up and using video conferencing. Even before the pandemic, teachers reported being less likely to ask ELs to use digital learning resources at home due to fears of access and difficulties they may face in communicating about technology.

“This lack of familiarity and fewer family supports that could assist the students are major barriers to access,” Hamburger said. “So equitable access in support for technology use, still now, is something that board members could explore with their district leadership.”

Just as important as addressing tech-based inequities now will be closing achievement gaps when students are able to return to campus. A big part of that will be questioning the gut instinct to push English learners into remediation to make up for lost learning time.

“English learners are going to need enrichment, acceleration, better and deeper opportunities. The reason they’re suffering right now is because the learning experiences that they are having are not robust enough, or deep enough,” Hamburger said. “We need to be careful that we question what our reactions to gaps in learning that are happening are.”

Going back to the basics and relying on remediation feels comfortable and sound, Willis agreed. However, “that wasn’t working before the pandemic,” he said.

“These gaps were substantial. Leslie’s framing of how to accelerate and enrich — especially with students who likely have been getting isolated or boxed into a certain way of thinking how they are ‘supposed to learn’ is something we need to blow the doors off,” Willis said.