UPDATED: DC Education Nonprofits See Issues of Technology Accessibility in Programs

By Cameron Fisher

As DC public and public charter school officials spent their summers planning how to approach the upcoming 2020-21 school year, the same could be said for the area’s educational nonprofits and teachers. These organizations too had been hanging in limbo, dangling from the looming reality of an entirely virtual start to the year and what that could mean in regard to access to technology.

Advocacy organizations across the city have partnered with different educators and schools for generations of kids and have become ingrained in communities because of the resources they offer. Resources like book clubs, financial literacy workshops, and cyberbullying education have become valued pieces of community engagement and as schools were making plans to best meet the needs of students, so have the nonprofits who provide additional support outside of the classroom. The summer’s remote-learning decision inevitably forced more than just the city’s schools to reevaluate their plans.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation for example is an arts foundation that supports literacy efforts in DC public schools and has done so through various community sponsored workshops. Finding ways to connect with students has been a major hurtle to overcome during the pandemic, and especially tough in a setting in which every student may not be equipped with the proper technology to participate.

“The biggest thing we have taken away is that the virtual space is not the same as an in-person space, which seems obvious,” said PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools Director Lacey Dunham in an interview. While recreating the classroom scene online is difficult, it poses another challenge when some students are unable to gain access through a lack of resources. PEN/Faulkner is unable to provide technology resources themselves due to funding, so the program is relying on schools and districts to fill in the technology inequities.

Normally, PEN/Faulkner sends their staff, interns, and writers into the schools to conduct creative writing seminars, literature reviews, author visits and cultural reading initiatives. Now that the regularly scheduled programming has been shifted online, instructors from the organization have had to reevaluate how to best serve students and still have meaningful interactions. For some students though, those interactions are limited due to digital imbalance.

“The equity gap around technology is huge, and that correlates pretty strongly to income and because income is related to race, all of those are pretty interconnected,” Dunham said.

Earlier this month, a new initiative from DC mayor Muriel Bowser set a new $3.3 million plan to provide free internet connection to 25,000 low income households. Eligible families have students enrolled in either DC public or public charter schools and are receiving supplemental assistance. The internet service will be paid for up to a year and help decrease the digital divide.

For many families, this assistance alleviates some of the pressure that this new school year brings. And though this is helpful for some, there still is the conversation of who is watching younger children as they are at home and trying to navigate remote learning.

DC Reads, the tutoring, mentoring and advocacy organization aimed at serving low-income youth in DC, has been trying to find ways to structure their new programming around executing the needs of students and helping parents, while still trying to combat educational inequalities.

 “Where DCPS still sees gaps is that you can get a computer tablet in the hands of every kid, but the childcare aspects is also where it’s tough. Is there an adult to help that six-year-old operate a Zoom room? Help them mute and unmute?” said DC Reads coordinator Galen Gammino in an interview.

With the stress on the economy during the pandemic, many parents across the country have had to wear many hats as they balance their jobs and their children at home. “A lot of parents are essential workers. And even if they’re working from home, they’re still they’re still working. So there’s definitely still a gap in that sense,” she said about the issue. The newfound crisis of parents taking on the role of the live-in teacher is something still being grappled with as the school year continues to progress.

DC Public Schools announced before the school year started that at least the first term of the year will be online, and then will be reevaluated come the end of the term in November. Until the time comes for another decision from the DC government, some schools are considering opening up limited space in classrooms for children who need more individualized attention or have working parents. 

Education nonprofits would have to adapt to whatever decision is made and be ready to send representatives into the schools to continue the organization’s programming either in person or online, both representatives from PEN/Faulkner and DC Reads said.

As these decisions begin to unfold for DC public and public charter schools, Fairfax County schools are also facing similar childcare issues for students whose parents work during the school day.

First grade teacher Alexandra Smith said in an interview, “In Virginia, the legal age to be left home alone is 8, so that’s none of my kids. So when parents are working, they have to miss class because they have to go with their parents to work, or they have to go to another family’s house. Even if the students have their computers, they’re not always able to attend because their parents are not able to be home with them.”

Smith works in a Title 1 school, which is a school with high numbers of children from low-income families, and particularly in her school, there is a significant language barrier as 14 of her 16 first graders are not native English speakers. Almost 65 percent of the school’s students speak Spanish and the remote learning classrooms do not have ESL teachers to assist with communicating. The language barrier also extends to the parents at home who are unable to communicate with the school about school-sponsored laptops or information about WiFi stipends.

Fairfax County Public Schools have been working with these families to coordinate solutions on how to get laptops in students’ hands and allow them to attend class. Many students at Smith’s school did not have the technology required to start the school year and are now working to catch up on the learning they missed.

Though there are many obstacles to overcome this school year, educators and nonprofit organizations are hopeful that the new setting will still allow them to facilitate the meaningful connections that help students learn.

“One thing that has come out of this is that it still has allowed for some really great interactions,” PEN/Faulkner’s Lacey Dunham said. “Kids are still going through things and struggling, right? Students are still having to deal with stuff. Just because we’re in COVID doesn’t mean it goes away, making our work even more important.”

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