Earlier this month, a photo showing two girls sitting outside of a Taco Bell using the free Wi-Fi to do their homework went viral.
The image underscored the digital and economic divide in this country. Nearly 16 million K-12 students lack adequate internet connection for remote learning, and there's evidence that class attendance is already down this year.
Teachers from the Salinas City Elementary School District in California recognized the girls in the viral photo as their students and the district immediately sent the family a hotspot.
But larger challenges remain, and now — nearly two months into remote learning — the district continues to face obstacles, says superintendent Rebeca Andrade, who stepped into that role in July.
In California alone, 20% of students don’t have internet access. Andrade’s district has provided hotspots to students and families, but she says it’s just the first step in improving broadband access and connectivity.
“Those are in a sense a Band-Aid because there is a larger discussion that we need to have in terms of internet access in remote areas that may not have the ability to connect, no matter whether you have a hotspot or not,” she says.
Andrade says solving the challenges of remote learning are not as simple as giving students a laptop or tablet and a hotspot.
“We no longer need devices. We're talking about the issue of internet access,” she says. “I think that the expansion of the connectivity is really something that I think is the next step for students, families and the community at large.”
The district is also offering online computer classes for parents, so that they can help their kids use the platforms that aid in remote learning, Andrade says.
“It's a challenge that I think we are all dealing with,” she says, “but in particular with families that may not have been as used to having to go into these online platforms, that learning curve is a little bit steeper.”
Parents can also check out student desks and chairs, so they can create an environment for their kids at home “to be able to feel that this is school time,” she says.
But a lot of parents aren’t home to supervise their children doing remote learning. Agricultural work dominates the area, so the district is looking into allowing a small cohort of students to go to school in person, Andrade says. Students experiencing homelessness, who are in the foster system and those with special needs would also be included.
The pandemic is also changing the way the school district, which is in a primarily Spanish-speaking area, teaches classes for English-language learners, which are normally very hands-on. Those students are having a harder time transitioning to remote learning, she says.
“The biggest thing that we are seeing is the need for students to have more time in terms of student talk time, and that ratio is so much more limited in this environment,” she says. “So what we are seeing is that students that are English learners as well as our students that are in the Spanish immersion programs are having a much more difficult time.”
This segment aired on September 23, 2020.