Want to avoid a cruel summer for Pa. students? Start by closing the digital divide | Janel Myers and Fletcher McClellan

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By Janel Myers and Fletcher McClellan

At this time in most school years, teachers are struggling to maintain the attention of their summer-dazed students.

This year, teachers have an additional layer of challenges as both they and their students navigate remote learning.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 46 states have extended their initial school closures for the remainder of the academic year. In addition, Pennsylvania and several other states are exploring the possibility of extending the closure beyond this spring.

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While the move to online learning protects both student and employee safety, it has brought into question issues of access and long-term attainment.

In the 2017 U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee report on America’s digital split, it was found that the ability to obtain and adopt high-speed internet was divided based on age, race, income, and education level.

In Pennsylvania, for example, a reported 187,000 residents are without access to the minimal connectivity necessitated to meet federal standards for broadband.

Additionally, at least 775,000 Pennsylvanians are reported to be without access to 25Mbps connection speeds, the minimum speed thought to accommodate most families’ needs.

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A 2019 study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania reported that no county in the state had at least 50 percent of its households receiving broadband connectivity.

These conclusions are supported by the findings of a 2018 survey by Pew Research that identified African-American teenagers and those from lower-income households as most likely to lack access to digital technologies. Specifically, one in four low-income teens do not have a home computer.

Responding to the digital divide, several providers are offering no-cost Internet for up to two months during the pandemic if a household qualifies for certain low-income programs or has a student at home.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has extended Continuity of Education Equity Grants to support local education agencies based on the highest percentages of students unable to partake in continuity of education.

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For example, the Harrisburg School District will increase student access by using their $261,582 grant to buy devices for students. Similarly, the School District of Philadelphia is loaning Chromebooks to every student that needs one.

Not all school districts with serious needs, such as the Allentown School District – which re-started instruction just last week – were so fortunate.

While various initiatives address issues of access, the effectiveness of instruction in this unsettled environment remains unclear.

The NWEA, a research nonprofit, projected that students may return in the fall with nearly 70 and 50 percent of learning gains in reading and mathematics, respectively. In some grades, students could return a full year behind.

Adjustments to online instruction may contribute to students falling behind. Experts recommend teachers receive preparation before launching an online learning program, ideally for months.

However, due to the abrupt switch to online it is likely more than a few teachers did not receive adequate training and groundwork to conduct virtual teaching.

Regarding online instruction itself, the good news is that many studies show it can be comparable to classroom instruction in promoting school achievement.

The not-so-good news is the online environment favors some learners more than others. Students who are motivated, independent, enjoy technology, and have strong language skills will be more successful. Putting it another way, students who struggle are likely to struggle more online.

How students are adjusting to the new learning environment is a big unknown. Student-athletes had seasons interrupted or wiped out. Students thinking about post-secondary education have had to alter their plans because of family economic hardship.

Home schooling and the absence of interaction with peers, not to mention the cancellation of graduation events, can add stress or build resiliency. 

Then there is the question of grading. For instance, the Ellwood City Area School Board overruled the recommendation of administrators to maintain the pre-coronavirus grading policy. Many school districts have moved to a pass/fail system for the fourth quarter of the school year.

In the midst of this disruption, school districts, teachers, administrators, staff, and employees – statewide and nationally – are performing heroically to deliver a high-quality education and serve the community.

Plans are already under way to provide alternative curricula, scheduling, and instruction next fall if public health restrictions remain in place.

Of course, what local schools will be able to do depends in large part on how they and state governments manage an expected collapse in revenues.

The bleak fiscal picture is likely to affect poorer school districts and families the most, widening the achievement gap between the educationally advantaged and disadvantaged.

For America’s educators, parents, schoolchildren, and young adults, it adds up to a cruel summer of uncertainty.

Janel Myers holds an undergraduate degree in political science and a master’s of public policy degree from Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @McCleleF.