Archives for category: Technology

Thomas Ultican took a close look at spending on education technology in North Carolina and was shocked by what he learned.

He begins:

A North Carolina cabal of school superintendents, politicians, consultants and technology companies has gone wild over the past seven years. In Chapel Hill, Education Elements obtained an illegitimate $767,000 contract. Chapel Hill-Carborro City Hills Schools (CHCCS) Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance, Jennifer Bennett, supposedly ignored school board policy and agreed to the contract in secret. It seems that when the state and local schools are spending on education technology, policies and law are being ignored.

After the Education Elements negotiations, Bennett sent a message to their Managing Partner, Jason Bedford, saying, “Need to get you guys to modify the [contract] if you can since if we include the whole potential payment value, then we have to take this to the Board since over our $90K threshold ….” This seems very damning, however, local citizens think they are being gas lighted. In the comments section on the school boards web site, several parents expressed the same opinion as parent Jeff Safir who wrote,

“I find it hard to believe that Jennifer Bennett acted alone and was the only person aware of the money being spent on the Education Elements engagement and I don’t understand why she is able to serve out the rest of her contract in an alternate capacity when the position is at-will ….”

Education Elements was created with funding from NewSchools Venture fund and a four other venture capital groups that invest in education startups. As noted in a previous article, “There are few districts in America that do not have a deeper bench when it comes to education theory, practical application and leadership talent than Education Elements.”  In agreement with this point, parent Kavita Rajagopal wrote,

“There is zero information as to exactly what our taxpayer dollars even bought from EdElements. I have spoken to numerous (double digits) teachers and not a single one found the training to be novel or particularly eye opening. Why are there no teachers at the table?”

Particularly galling to CHCCS parents is the fact that 20 of 40 teaching assistants working in special education were let go at the same time this contract was consummated. Parent Payal Perera wrote, “I was appalled to learn that the EC support staff funding was cut, while $750K was available for these other things!”…

It is not just North Carolina school districts ignoring past practices, policies and laws concerning education technology spending. In 2018, Mark Johnson, the Republican Superintendent of Schools, led a group of three local politicians and two superintendents of schools on an all expense paid junket to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California.

Seven months later, Johnson announced a $6.6 million I-pad contract to supply the devices to North Carolina public school students in kindergarten through third grade. It was a no-bid contract that bypassed the state Department of Information Technology.

Johnson has great connections but he is not qualified to lead schools. In 2016, 33-years-old Mark Johnson became North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. He garnered 50.6% of the vote besting his opponents 49.4% tally.

The young lawyer vacated his position as corporate counsel at Inmar, an international technology company, where he had worked for three years to take the Superintendent’s position. His only training and experience in education was a two year temp teacher stint with Teach For America (TFA).

Although he clearly lacked the qualifications of Professor June Atkinson, the incumbent, several billionaires including Arthur Rock, Michael Bloomberg, Jonathan Sackler and Steuart Walton contributed heavily to his campaign.

In 2016, Johnson also received support from the Leadership for Education Equity (LEE) PAC. It supports TFA alumni running for office. The Silicon Valley billionaire, Arthur Rock, is a board member of LEE along with Michael Bloomberg’s daughter Emma. 

There’s more, much more, and it’s all unsavory.

Mitchell Robinson, a professor at Michigan State University, has advice for state Democratic parties about their message to voters. He suggests what they need to do to attract new voters and turn red legislatures blue. Two big ideas: expand internet access and promote public education, K-16.

He begins:

1. Better, more affordable access to broadband internet service

In a digital age, access to fast, secure internet service is not only a basic human need–akin to utilities like electricity, water, and gas/oil–but it’s a requirement for candidates building a digital campaign infrastructure. Not being able to reliably connect to persons in remote areas of your state, or to those who live in urban areas plagued by internet deserts, severely hampers the ability to convey a candidate’s or party’s message, policy beliefs, or positions on issues. It also leaves persons without reliable internet access to the mercies of our information sources like Fox News or the Detroit News–meaning that they are less informed than someone with no media access at all.

2. Improve support for public education, including community colleges and state universities

One of the single largest predictors of voting patterns is the level of education among a group of potential voters. In general, the more educated a person is, the more likely that person is to vote, and to vote for Democratic candidates. Areas and states with a lower percentage of college-educated voters tend to vote Republican, and more educated areas tend to vote for Democrats. It just stands to reason that increasing the number of college-educated voters would lead to a more Democratic populace.

At the same time, the concerted attacks on public institutions under Republicans have decimated public schools in both our largest cities and the most sparsely populated regions in the country. Aside from race and ethnicity, the demographics and socio-economic issues in cities and rural areas are surprisingly similar–including the damage that has been done by Republican and neoliberal ed reform policies to students, teachers, and schools in both urban and rural communities.

  • Imagine a Democratic platform that features free community college tuition and affordable access to state colleges and universities, and a return to the kind of financial support from state legislatures that was common as recently as the late 1970s.

Open the link and read his other strong ideas to change the political dynamic.

Laura Chapman read Andy Hargreaves’ provocative article about the educational technology we will need in the future, and she responded with this comment:

Andy Hargreaves says: “We need to create conditions for technologically enhanced learning that are universal, public and free to those who need it.”

Yes. But that is unlikely to happen in the United States, even if available elsewhere. In our market-based economy, the expression “digital learning,” should be understood as the opportunity for tech companies to learn as much as they wish about the users of their devices and software. The best we seem able to do is offer legislation that attempts to limit exploitation of data being gathered by technologies.

For example, The National Biometric Information Privacy Act, proposed by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley, is not likely to pass. The Act would require a business to secure prior written consent from individuals before the business could use any of their immutable characteristics captured by facial recognition or any other biometric systems. See https://www.biometricupdate.com/202008/broad-biometric-protections-in-senate-bill-with-slim-prospects

Also dead in the water is S. 1341 (114th Congress): Student Privacy Protection Act, introduced May 15, 2015, read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. This bill was intended to prohibit the use of federal funds for tech-based data gathering enabled by technology. Here is a small sample of the intended prohibitions:
—No federal funds for analysis of facial expressions, EEG brain wave patterns, skin conductance, galvanic skin response, heart-rate variability, pulse, blood volume, posture, and eye-tracking.
—No measures or data about psychological resources, mindsets, learning strategies, effortful control, attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes, intrapersonal and interpersonal resources, or any other type of social, emotional, or psychological parameter.
—A special rule exempts data collection required by the Disabilities Education Act.
But there was more.
—No federal funds can be used for video monitoring of classrooms in the school, for any purpose, including for teacher evaluation, without the approval of the local educational agency after a public hearing and the written consent of the teacher and the parents of all students in the classroom. These restrictions apply to outside parties (e.g., researchers) as well.
—No federal funds for computing devices with remote camera surveillance software without the approval of the local educational agency after a public hearing, and for teachers or students without the written consent of the teacher and the parent of each affected student.
—Section 5 of the bill defines PII, personally identifiable information, and prohibited data-gathering that could reveal, without authorization, the identity of a student (e.g., SSNs, student numbers, biometric records), indirect identifiers (e.g., date of birth, place of birth, mother’s maiden name). As far as I know, that bill is the only legislation that has come close to putting some brakes on rampant data-gathering enabled by ed-tech.

It is easy to suppose that edtech will thrive in the midst of our COVID-19 pandemic. Not so fast warns Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of education policy for the Software & Information Industry Association. He claims the ed tech industry is facing downsizing from the pandemic’s crunch on school budgets. He says “Communication and information sharing platforms like Google, Zoom, and SchoolMessenger are among the big ‘winners’” but thousands of software companies may be in trouble. He offers predictions about the market for edtech and repeats talking points about the importance of edtech on behalf of the profit-seekers whom is represents.

Meanwhile the Gates-funded Data Quality Campaign, the major non-profit preoccupied with data-gathering on a large scale claims that data from edtech is necessary for “student success.” It postures about student privacy issues, but this “campaign” is eager to see more data gathering on students and teachers at scale and longitudinally, including results from the Common Core and associated state tests. https://dataqualitycampaign.org/why-education-data/make-data-work-students/

The Data Quality Campaign has just released a new messaging brief with two partners known for promoting the Common Core standards and testing–the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Collaborative for Student Success. The brief tells states how they should measure “student growth” in 2021, given that most states have no 2020 statewide assessment data.”

This brief is an effort to keep statewide testing (and the Common Core) alive through messaging and marketing. The brief cites and exaggerates the importance of three “push surveys” designed to asset that teachers and parents really want so-called “growth scores.” A growth scores is a euphemism for year-to-year gains in test scores. This brief also cites and promotes SAS, the marketers of discredited value-added calculations known as EVASS (Education Value-Added Assessment System). In other words, the drumbeat for terrible policies goes on and from unelected policy shapers who use their non-profit status for lobbying.
https://dataqualitycampaign.org/news/states-can-and-should-measure-student-growth-in-2021/

It is no surprise that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the three organizations claiming credit for this brief. The Gates Foundation has sent the Data Quality Campaign $25.3 million in 15 grants and The Alliance for Excellent Education $27 million in 15 grants. The Collaborative for Student Success is described as “a multi-donor fund” investing in “messaging efforts that build support for high standards, high-quality aligned assessments, and systems of accountability that promote success for all students.” The Collaborative is funded by ExxonMobil and five major foundations, among them the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as detailed by Mercedes Schneider here. https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/gates-is-at-it-again-the-common-core-centered-collaborative-for-student-success/

This is to say that market forces are not just operating in public education but that the wealth of nonprofits is well-organized to push ed-tech.

We are not now, or in the foreseeable future likely to see anything close to “conditions for technologically enhanced learning that are universal, public and free to those who need it.”

Our national and state policies are designed to subsidize profit-seeking from education.

Victoria Theisen Homer writes in Salon about the ways that remote learning distorts and devalues human relationships.

She writes:

Think of your favorite teacher. Whenever I ask people to do this, they usually tell me about a teacher who saw them: the one who took them aside and encouraged them to pursue art or computer science, who helped counsel them through a personal issue, who attended their Quinceañera — who, ultimately, just cared. By connecting with us in meaningful ways, these teachers not only earned a permanent place in our memories, they also engaged, challenged, and inspired us. Today, our nation’s 56.6 million elementary and secondary students could all use teachers like this, to help shepherd them through the pandemic and into a better future. But even in the best of times, school structures are more conducive to punitive discipline than meaningful teacher-student relationships, especially in our least-resourced schools. Today, with the challenges of virtual learning and the urgent messaging around “COVID slide” – the learning loss students may have suffered while they were out of school – relationships in schools are under further threat, just when students need them most.

Across the U.S., the pandemic has put a strain on families and children, many of whom continue to suffer from food insecurity, job loss, or the death of loved ones to COVID-19. So as kids begin school this year, they require connection, understanding, and nurturance from their teachers. While positive relationships with significant adult figures like teachers help children cope with trauma, such relationships also facilitate better learning. When students have meaningful relationships with their teachers, they are more likely to engage in class, more likely to feel like they can complete their school work, more likely to grow and achieve academically and personally. This is because learning is profoundly social.

But the pandemic has turned everything upside down.

Homer has prepared teachers. She studied some that entered affluent progressive schools where encouragement was the norm, and another group that taught in “no excuses” public school where conformity and obedience were customary.

The pandemic has extended “no-excuses” discipline into many schools that rely on remote learning.

She writes:

Schools across the country that primarily serve students of color and those from low-income backgrounds often adopt an approach to learning that centers on standardized test scores and control. For example, the other teacher education program in my study was situated in a “no excuses” charter school, the most prominent type of urban charter school (think KIPP or Success Academy), which aim to efficiently improve the academic achievement of children of color from low income backgrounds by eliminating anything they feel might distract students from learning (e.g. colorful socks, poor posture, indirect eye contact, talking in hallways).

At schools like this, educators maintain that there is no valid excuse for children’s failure to learn or behave. The teacher education program grounded in this context approached relationships like a formula: applying a series of discrete moves to accumulate “professional relationship capital” with students to increase their behavioral compliance and academic achievement. The director explained, “I think the foundation of the relationship is that my job is to try to generate maximum effort in thinking from you. That’s my job. It’s not to be your friend.”

Again, I followed graduates of this program into their first year of teaching at no excuses middle schools that primarily served students of color. These teachers also began the year by faithfully applying what they had learned about connecting with and disciplining students. They walked around their classrooms with timers in hand, smoothly assigned merits and demerits for behavior, integrated “little nuggets” they had recalled about students into brief interactions with them, and conducted “rebuilding conversations” after removing students from their class for infractions. It was all very efficient and controlled. Students were often silent, and hoped this approach would help them “succeed.” But they did not feel truly seen or understood as human beings by their teachers. One student explained, “I don’t think any of the teachers [know us].” And by the end of the year, one of these teachers admitted, “I think a lot of the kids sort of feel like it’s run like a jail…They’re very smart kids, and they understand that some of our rules are unnecessary, and overly strict, and un-empathetic.” The urgent insistence on academic achievement and behavioral conformity in these schools not only eroded opportunities for nurturing teacher-student relationships, it also conditioned students for subservience. This might be why some research indicates no excuses schools improve student test scores, but not life outcomes.

No excuses schools are not alone in this approach, though, and it now seems to be extending to virtual school. Desperate to counteract COVID-slide, educators are implementing plans to monitor and control student behavior during virtual class, including their attire, location, camera-use, attentiveness, and snacking. This is unfortunate but not surprising, because whenever the focus of schooling turns to quantifiable educational outcomes like standardized test scores or budgetary efficiencies, students are treated like products that must be regulated. Of course, humans are not products, and we all have very good excuses not to be performing as others may want us to right now, but the forces that govern schools don’t seem to get that. Because affluent and white students are more likely to attend schools with the resources to support meaningful relationships and less likely to be penalized for virtual or in-person violations, students of color will bear the brunt of this coming “discipline crisis,” which is really a crisis for relationships. For while relationships connect children to teachers and schools, harsh discipline severs ties.

Efforts to close the academic “gaps” that grew wider during COVID have facilitated the worst kinds of teaching.

One lesson learned since March is that remote learning is a very inferior way to conduct school. Students are bored, and teachers are frustrated. Distance learning may be necessary but it’s a poor substitute for in-person learning.

Gayle Greene writes in The American Prospect about the bonanza struck by EdTech due to the pandemic.

As she shows, EdTech has a shabby history in the classroom but now we are in a period that it’s needed, no matter how shabby it may be. She reviews recent EdTech disasters and notes that none of them have sunk the hope that EdTech is “innovative” and “cutting edge,” rather than a disaster that undercuts the vital human-to-human interaction that makes dc learning come to life.

She writes:

The transition to online teaching made everyone aware of the value of person-to-person communication. The human signals that tell a teacher how a class is reacting—the sighs, groans, snorts, giggles, eye rolls, glances, body language—are stripped away online. The teacher can’t even tell if she’s being heard. Warmth is difficult to express; rapport, trust, bonding almost impossible to build. “Kids can be hard to motivate under the best of circumstances,” says teacher blogger Steven Singer, “but try doing it through a screen.” Students say so, too: “I can’t get myself to care … I just feel really disconnected from everything.”

Ed tech companies lost no time moving in. “When the pandemic hit, right away we got a list of all these technology companies that make education software that were offering free access to their products for the duration of the coronavirus crisis,” said Gordon Lafer, political economist at the University of Oregon and a member of his local school board. “They pitch these offerings as stepping up to help out the country in a moment of crisis. But it’s also like coke dealers handing out free samples.” Marketing has become so aggressive that a school superintendent near Seattle tweeted a heartfelt appeal to vendors: “Please stop. Just stop … my superintendent colleagues and I … need to focus on our communities. Let us do our jobs.” Her plea hit a nerve, prompting a survey by the National Superintendents Roundtable that revealed “a deep vein of irritation and discontent” at the barrage of texts, emails, and phone calls, “a distraction and nuisance” when they’re trying to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Comments on this survey ranged from “negative in the extreme” to “scathing,” and expressed concerns that these products “have not been validated” and that “free” offers conceal contracts for long-term pay.

For the past two decades, ed tech has been pushing into public schools, convincing districts to invest in tablets, software, online programs, assessment tools. Many superintendents have allowed these incursions, directing funding to technology that might have been better spent on human resources, teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians (up to $5.6 billion of school technology purchased sits unused, according to a 2019 analysis in EdWeek Market Brief). Now the pandemic has provided ed tech a “golden opportunity,” a “tailwind” (these are the terms we hear): Michael Moe, head of the venture capitalist group Global Silicon Valley, says: “We see the education industry today as the health care industry of 30 years ago.” Not a happy thought.

Read the whole article. You will be glad you did.

The schools of Sarasota, Florida, have adopted what they call “a concurrent model,” with teachers responsible for both in-person and remote learning. Some teachers say this is like working two jobs at once and wonder whether this is sustainable.

School in Sarasota County started a few days ago, but some educators say they are already overwhelmed and exhausted by the new way of teaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers knew this year was going to be a challenge with social distancing, extra sanitizing measures, technology issues, projecting their voices through a face mask for hours on end, and juggling students both in the classroom and at home — something the district is calling concurrent learning.

Four days into the new school year, some concurrent teachers aren’t so sure the teaching model is doable long term.

“I am worried that after a month or two of this, teachers that are really trying their best are going to start breaking down because it is not a sustainable way of teaching and we will burn out,” said Sarasota High School teacher Sarah Sturzu.

President of Sarasota Classified Teachers Association Patricia Gardner tells 8 On Your Side she’s been getting emails and teary-eyed phone calls one after another since school started Monday.

“They are finding they can’t give the attention to both groups. They just don’t feel like they are doing the job they should be doing and they feel the kids aren’t getting what they deserve to get on either side of this,” said Gardner.

Emily Harris teaches A.P. U.S. History at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. She writes here about her faith in the public schools. She is concerned that some students have enrolled in the EPIC virtual charter school, which has a horrible record and operates for profit.

I am a teacher at Will Rogers High School. My husband, John, is a teacher at Nathan Hale High School. We are proud our 1-year-old son, Andrew, will become a fourth-generation Tulsa Public Schools student. As generations of our family have done before us, we will choose Tulsa Public Schools. My grandmother is a Central Brave. My father-in-law is a Will Rogers Roper. My mother is a Hale Ranger. My father, husband, sisters and I are Edison Eagles.

Our public schools are part of the fabric of what makes us Tulsans. Many of you reading this can say the same about your family. These schools have history. They have tradition. They have proud alumni. We cannot give up on them.

Tulsa Public Schools began the 2019-2020 school year planning for a $20 million budget shortfall caused by years of improper state funding and declining enrollment. Despite more than a decade of underfunding, many Tulsa Public Schools teachers have persisted in challenging working conditions. These teachers know what it is like to face obstacles and overcome them for hope that all students will reach their full potential. Tulsa Public Schools teachers will carry the same tenacity and spirit of optimism with them as they take on the challenges presented to them this school year.

The Tulsa Public Schools of my parents’ generation did not have to compete for students with suburban districts and online charter schools. Recent reports show that Epic, an all virtual charter school founded in 2011, is seeing a recent surge in enrollment. It has now surpassed Oklahoma City and Tulsa to become our state’s largest school district. Epic Charter Schools may sound like an appealing option to parents in the short term, but data from an Oklahoma Watch investigation in 2019 showed that only 14.7% of Epic graduates enrolled in an Oklahoma public college or university compared to 43.6% of Tulsa Public Schools graduates. This is concerning as it points to the assumption that Epic’s model is more about compliance to meet graduation standards rather than preparation for a student’s life beyond K-12 education.

Epic is contributing to declining enrollment in Tulsa Public Schools. The result is critical state funding being siphoned away from traditional public schools. Unlike Tulsa Public Schools, Epic is a statewide school district, and does not serve as a pillar of our community. When our community supports Tulsa Public Schools, they are undoubtedly making a worthwhile investment in the future of Tulsa….

Here’s what I do know for certain: I will spend each day working in my empty classroom on the fourth floor of Will Rogers High School. I will do my best with technology to teach American history and serve Tulsa students from a distance. I will work with my talented colleagues to collaborate and come up with creative solutions to challenging and unprecedented issues. We will carry with us a mindset to serve students first.

I choose Tulsa Public Schools, and I will continue to serve Tulsa students for many years ahead. The possibility of a truly equitable Tulsa community for all depends on your support of our public school system. I assure you, my students’ hopes and dreams are worth it. Teachers cannot wait for the day when we get to see our students in person. Until then, I ask that you please have faith in teachers. Have faith in Tulsa Public Schools.

The Washington Post published a story about the millions of students who are effectively denied an education during the pandemic because their family can’t afford to pay for access to the Internet.

The Post called the situation “a national crisis.” It is.

The Internet has become as essential as free water and air. Why isn’t it a public utility, regulated by the FCC and free to all?

When you turn on a radio, you get free access to AM and FM stations. Why not free access to the Internet? There may be a good reason, but I haven’t heard it.

Here is the story:


A national crisis’: As coronavirus forces many schools online this fall, millions of disconnected students are being left behind

Before the pandemic, it was called “the homework gap,” because of the growing number of teachers who assigned homework that required Internet access. Now, as the pandemic forces many schools to switch to remote learning, disconnected students will miss more than homework. They’ll miss all of school.

For all the talk of Generation Z’s Internet savvy, a stunning number of young people are locked out of virtual classes because they lack high-speed Internet service at home. In 2018, nearly 17 million children lived in homes without high-speed Internet, and more than 7 million did not have computers at home, according to a report prepared by a coalition of civil rights and education groups that analyzed census data for that year.

The issue affects a disproportionately high percentage of Black, Latino and Native American households — with nearly one-third of students lacking high-speed Internet at home. Students in Southern states and in rural communities also were particularly overrepresented. In Mississippi and Arkansas, about 40 percent of students lacked high-speed Internet.

After the closures prompted by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, school systems rushed to buy and distribute laptops and WiFi hot spots to students, and service providers offered discounts to low-income families, efforts that made a dent in the numbers.

Education advocates say Congress could deliver an easy fix as part of a coronavirus relief package by expanding an existing program that helps schools and libraries get Internet service. But those hopes collapsed alongside talks between Congress and the White House on a new relief package. With talks deadlocked, President Trump issued an executive order for coronavirus relief. It provides nothing for K-12 public schools. The consequences of the gap between those who have access to virtual learning and those who do not could be felt for years to come.

“It’s dire,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who has pushed to increase funding that subsidizes the cost of Internet service for schools and libraries. Her district contains parts of rural Virginia that are not served by Internet service providers. “We are generationally committing to significant divides in our communities over what kind of education our children are getting.”

Internet access is so central to children’s education that allowing students to go without it is like sending them to classrooms without textbooks, said Jordana Barton, who studies the digital divide in Texas as a community development adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. So many students being without Internet service is “a travesty,” she said.
“Before the pandemic, I thought that the homework gap was so serious that Internet should be provided by the schools,” she said.
America is about to start online learning, Round 2. For millions of students, it won’t be any better.

Educators have long seen access to high-speed Internet as essential — not optional — for students. Now, the pandemic has forced many schools to start classes remotely, and the problem has taken on new urgency. Because the Internet is essential to gaining access to virtual instruction, a failure to provide the service to students is akin to barring them from school altogether.

“It’s going back to the old days where we blocked people from going to schools to be able to learn to read,” said Pedro Martinez, the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas. More than half of families in Martinez’s district do not have high-speed Internet service at home. “It’s like us saying, ‘You can’t come into class. You can’t come to school.’ ”

Maryland resident Haydee Berdejo, 18, does not have high-speed Internet at home in Baltimore and can get online only with a smartphone. When her magnet high school, Baltimore City College, shut down in mid-March, she spent her school days hunched over the phone, where she had difficulty hearing her teachers.

Berdejo, who is from Mexico and still learning English, said the setup made bridging the language gap even more difficult. At times, the screen was fuzzy. And though her classes are mostly taught in English, with the schools closed, she no longer has access to a translator.

She said she is anxious about the coming school year because she has had little opportunity to practice English. “I’m worried I won’t be able to participate in class or answer a question from the teacher, because I won’t know what they’re saying to me,” she said in Spanish.

Even as many students start school without high-speed Internet service at home, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have done little to help school systems meet that need. Many have given up hope that help is coming and have instead appealed to charities, philanthropists and the Internet service providers themselves, hoping for donations or discounts. Susan Enfield, the superintendent of the Highline Public Schools in Washington state, set up a program to allow more-affluent families to “sponsor” low-income households by paying their Internet bills.

Though some service providers offer discounts to low-income families, service is still out of reach for those who have poor credit or unpaid bills. And even the discounted rate can be too much — especially for families struggling with job losses.

In Baltimore, the school system helped set up 7,000 families with Internet Essentials, a program that provides low-cost Internet service to qualifying households. The first two months of the program were free. But last month, the school system realized that if it didn’t pay the $650,000 bill, many of those families would lose service.

“I was not going to stand by and let 14,000 students not be able to log on because of a bill we knew needed to be paid,” said Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises. “It’s yet one more thing that, in serving children and families, schools are being asked to do.”
The lack of a national strategy has left superintendents to devise solutions on their own. And that means whether students get connected often depends on the charisma of a superintendent and the generosity of the surrounding community, Santelises said.

“It is the leaders who are trying to do deals, who are trying to negotiate, trying to leverage money here, leverage money there,” Santelises said. “If we are relying on the individual negotiation capacity of Sonja Santelises or any other sitting superintendent to make sure families have WiFi, that is problematic, and it is a split, and it is symptomatic of a much larger issue.”

A long-standing program run by the Federal Communications Commission that subsidizes Internet service for schools and libraries is of little help to students during the pandemic. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told schools they can use the funding only for Internet service at their campuses — even when schools have been shut down. Pai has said that the law does not allow the money to be used for providing domestic Internet service and that he does not have the authority to do otherwise.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the sole Democrat on the panel, disagrees — as do congressional Democrats and school leaders across the country. She accused the commission of failing to act to address what she called “a national crisis.”

“The FCC is sticking its head in the sand or looking the other way and doing everything it can to ignore this,” Rosenworcel said. “This is something we can fix — and we should.”

Schools and students have been left to find solutions on their own. The parking lots of schools, libraries and fast-food restaurants that offer free WiFi have become de facto classrooms for many students. Other school systems equipped buses with WiFi hot spots and parked them in underserved neighborhoods. In some school systems, such as Baltimore, officials just paid the bills of hundreds of families out of their own budgets to keep the households online.

But none of the improvised solutions are sustainable or scalable, and they often rely on the ability of school officials to court philanthropists and negotiate with Internet service providers.

Cleveland public schools CEO Eric Gordon said he hopes the pandemic will force lawmakers to rethink how they view the Internet. He said two-thirds of households in his district can connect to the Internet only by cellphone, which is inadequate for virtual classes.
“It’s just time we recognize that the Internet has become a utility in the same way electricity became a public utility,” Gordon said.

Bryan Akins, the principal of Keota High School in rural southeast Oklahoma, said many of his families do not have a reliable cellular signal — let alone high-speed Internet. Companies see little incentive to lay broadband lines in places where they will not get many customers, or they pass the expense to customers, charging more to those who live in far-flung communities. The school’s switch-over to remote learning in the spring posed “a big problem,” Akins said.

“My teachers can teach virtually, but my students can’t access it virtually,” Akins said. Instead, staffers in the high-poverty district delivered homework along with weekly grocery packages. “Now you’re relying on the parent to help teach, or the student to teach themselves.”

But although connectivity challenges are often viewed as a rural problem, many students in urban districts also lack high-speed Internet service at home. In some cases, this is because they live in neighborhoods that — like many rural communities — do not have the infrastructure. In many others, the barrier is the expense, even though many service providers offer low-income families steeply discounted Internet service. Families that are facing financial turmoil in the recession may opt to drop the Internet.

Jaclyn Trapp, who is to start 10th grade at MC2STEM High School in Cleveland, shares a Chromebook with a little brother and with three stepsiblings who visit on weekends. When the pandemic hit, her mother and stepfather, both interior house painters, took a huge hit financially as work dried up. So they canceled their home Internet service, which had cost around $60 a month.

Jaclyn began using her phone as a hot spot — but soon she was out of data. Finally, the family struck a deal with an upstairs neighbor who agreed to allow the family to use his WiFi if they split the bill. But the signal, which has to travel to their downstairs apartment, is slow and unreliable.

“Without the Internet and not going to school, it’s really hard to do schoolwork,” Jaclyn said.

Moriah Balingit is an education reporter for The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2014. She previously covered crime, city hall and crime in city hall at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Please read the articles in Capital & Main’s series on teaching in the age of COVID-19, which is titled “The Year of Teaching Dangerously.” They spell out the frustrations and the learning curve that teachers and students have coped with in these uncertain times. Routines went out the window. Teachers had to improvise, to be creative and innovative, and to learn to live with unprecedented challenges.

They are linked here:

Elementary School Students’ Uneasy Year Zero” by Sasha Abramsky.

Are High Schoolers Zoning Out on Zoom?” by Sasha Abramsky.

Middle School Teachers Face a Fall Term of Uncertainty,” by Sasha Abramsky.

Teachers Discover that Distance Learning is a Dance,” by Larry Buhl.

From the last article:

Imagine you’ve been cast in your school’s spring musical – in this case, High School Musical — and you’ve been rehearsing for months, but the COVID crisis closes everything a day before the show opens. Andrea Calvo, a teacher at Orange County’s Ladera Vista Junior High School of the Arts in Fullerton, was directing the show and said the performers, as well as students and in her guitar and choir classes, have been emotionally “all over the place” since March.

“Some days [they are] depressed, some days happy. They went through all the emotions and the ups and downs that teachers did,” Calvo said. There was so much confusion on how online instruction would go, and how long it would last. “We were grieving but didn’t know what we were grieving.”

In July the Orange County School Board stepped into the national spotlight by declaring its schools, unlike Los Angeles County to the north and San Diego County to the south, would open for fall classes – and without masks or social distancing. It would prove to be a moot point, because later that week Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated that all schools on the state COVID-19 monitoring list – including Orange County’s – be closed until they are off California’s monitoring list for 14 consecutive days.

A week before the fall term started, Calvo said that teachers’ stress levels have lowered somewhat since the March scramble to take learning online. Now there’s a plan to reopen schools – when the school meets the state criteria and not before – if not an exact date.

“Not knowing is stressful,” Calvo says. “Nobody thinks distance learning went well in the spring. We were in crisis mode.”

After a few months of trial and error, and a summer to connect with other music teachers nationwide on distance learning best practices, Calvo says she’s better equipped to teach online. She adds that the students at her school all had iPads, so they were already better poised for distance learning than students in other schools. Not that it made the switch easy. Nothing in her 20 years of teaching could prepare Calvo for Zoom meetings with choir students who appeared, singing, on 60 little video boxes on a computer monitor.

“We did warmups, they recorded themselves, and I hosted,” she said. “For musical theater, I demonstrate movement [in real time] and they follow.” There were too many students to fit on one computer screen, but fortunately Calvo had help from a student teacher, who monitored a second screen.

But Calvo says Orange County adopted what it calls a “Do no harm” grading policy during the crisis. The idea is that you can’t hold students to the same standards while schools are closed. “Some students were at home with family and quarantining there. Some may be at home all alone caring for siblings, some had sick parents. We don’t know what students are going through.”

But Calvo and fellow teachers and staff do want some idea of what students are going through, and they try to make sure everything is all right. “We make spreadsheets to see, ‘Oh this student didn’t log in for three days. So in that case we call and ask if everything is okay.’”

Not giving up on its plan to force everyone back into classrooms during the pandemic, the O.C. Board of Education last month vowed to sue Gov. Newsom over school closures, claiming that online instruction had been a “failure.”

Distance learning for the long haul
Calvo said that attitudes of parents and county residents have shifted over the past five months as more have accepted that the pandemic will change learning for the foreseeable future. “In May, Orange County posted photos of what classes would look like, with PPE and distancing, and people said, ‘Oh, that looks awful.’ Now, more people want schools to look like that when they open.”

“As a teacher and a parent I think distance learning is safest,” says Calvo. “But that is from a place of privilege, because I know I am able to stay home. A lot of parent friends feel the same way but I recognize we may be in a bubble.”

Calvo assumes distance learning will be the norm well into the new school year. That’s a challenge for any school, but for hers, which has 30 arts electives, it’s an even bigger challenge to maintain its culture. “There is a lot of creativity here. [Distance learning] is a dance.”

Capital & Main published a five-part series on teaching during the pandemic. The series is called “The Year of Teaching Dangerously.”

Sasha Abramsky launched the series with an article about how schools in California were adapting to the pandemic.

Abramsky writes about the uncertainty, confusion, and conflict that accompanied the shutdown, as teachers were required to address new realities and to confront stark inequities.

In March, when Northern California counties issued stay-at-home orders, followed shortly afterwards by a statewide shutdown, schools scrambled to improvise a pivot to online “distance learning.” Some were able to make the change within days; others took many weeks. Grading and assessment systems were largely put to one side, at least in the public school system. And school districts rushed – and in some cases struggled – to purchase and distribute Chromebooks or iPads to students who didn’t have them; to set up Wi-Fi hotspots for families lacking home Internet access; to work out how to keep distributing food to children from low-income families who relied on school breakfasts and lunches; and to set up methods of teaching online that wouldn’t leave out students who had special education plans, or who were English language learners.

Bureaucratic systems fabled for their inflexibility were, suddenly, tasked with finding kluge-like solutions, at speed, to meet these extraordinary challenges. Inevitably, the result was hit or miss.

The articles in this week’s new series, “The Year of Teaching Dangerously,” reflect the extraordinary challenges facing elementary, middle and high schools as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on daily life.

What began as a temporary shutdown evolved into a new way of life, for teachers, students, and parents.