LEADING IN A PANDEMIC AND VIRTUAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENT by Marcus J. Newsome, Ed.D., August 5, 2020
According to the Federal Communication Commission Broadband Development Report released April 24, 2020, “Available evidence demonstrates that the digital divide continues to narrow as more Americans than ever before have access to high-speed broadband. The number of Americans without access to 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile broadband with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps fell approximately 54% between 2017 and 2018, with vast majority of Americans—surpassing 85%. Over the same period, the number of Americans living in rural areas with access to such service increased by 85%.”
Among the 50 states in the US, Virginia ranks 31st with 94% of its residence having access to broadband internet. Notwithstanding, according to Nicol Turner Lee of the Brookings Institute, “because low-income families tend to be more smartphone-dependent, they lack access to multiple internet-enabled devices (e.g., tablets, PCs or laptops) to get online, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Click Here to see Pew Study statistics. School-age children are most affected by this lack of ubiquitous access with 35% of their households without broadband services in 2015.”
Nicole Turner Lee has four suggestions to accommodate virtual learning.
1. CREATE DIGITAL NORMS IN SCHOOLS.
Having effective leadership in schools is the first step in the slow acculturation to and adoption of
technology. A forward-thinking leader drives the technology vision for school and integrates it into the existing culture.
2. PARK WIRELESS SCHOOL BUSES IN LOCAL COMMUNITIES LACKING BROADBAND ACCESS. Leaders need to bridge the divide between schools and communities. Lee says that while libraries often fill the gaps in local access, the mandate of social distancing makes it virtually and physically impossible to use their services. There are approximately 480,000 school buses, transporting 25 million students every week. Installing Wi-Fi hotspots on these vehicles can better support social distancing.
3. BRING DEVICE LENDING PROGRAMS TO SCHOOL OPERATED NUTRITION CENTERS. Lack of access to mobile devices in low-income urban and rural areas is a barrier to student learning. In 2018, the National School Lunch Program provided low-cost and free lunches to 29.7 million children. Schools can engage community partners to bring lending programs for hardware and other internet-enabled devices, including Wi-Fi hotspots, to needy students while they are at these feeding centers.
4. WE NEED TO MAKE CLOSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE A GLOBAL IMPERATIVE. Almost one billion children across the globe had their school doors closed in response to COVID-19. We must think more globally about broadband connectivity. “Today, the problems of the digital divide are manifesting among students. In the future, it will challenge workers forced to move to telework. As we assess the broader impacts and implications of the coronavirus, one thing is clear—we are not effectively using and disseminating 21st century tools to alleviate current and unforeseen problems,” according to Lee.
Virginia’s superintendents and educators are among the most creative and innovative in the country. As they develop strategies to close the digital divide and equity gaps, others will be closely watching. My advice for school leaders is to balance their time between crisis management and visionary leadership. By managing we make the necessary immediate and fast pace choices and actions to respond to the daily and sometime minute by minute changes driven by federal, state and local decision makers. But by leading we can take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to change the way we educate and prepare our children for a brighter future. By thinking three, four or five steps ahead, we will be better positioned to solve future challenges, not matter how great. Together, we can do this!
Aimee A. Howley, Lawrence Wood and Brian H. Hough, “Rural Elementary School Teachers’ Technology Integration,” Journal of Research in Rural Education 26, no. 9 (2011), http://jrre.psu.edu/articles/26-9.pdf.
Monica Anderson, & Madhumitha Kumar, Pew Research Institute, Digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in the tech adoption. May 7, 2019.
Nicol Turner Lee, TechTank, What the coronavirus reveals about the digital divide between schools and communities. Tuesday, March 12, 2020.
O’Rielly and Carr, “Broadband Development Report using separate statements,” Adopted: April 20, 2020 Released: April 24, 2020.