Arizona schools spent the summer taking steps to make sure students have the technology and Wi-Fi access they need for online learning to narrow the digital divide.
For example, Holbrook Unified School District used some of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES ACT) to purchase Chromebooks and “used existing Chromebooks in the school to get a technology device in the hands of all students,” Superintendent Robert Koerperich said.
“We will now have the opportunity for a one-to-one environment when we are able to return to on-campus school,” said Dr. Koerperich, noting they also bought students carrying cases for the Chromebooks.
More than 70 percent of Sacaton Elementary School District students checked out an iPad or Chrome book for remote learning this year, said Superintendent Dr. Cherryl Paul.
Ajo Unified School District has purchased enough new Chromebooks for about 46 percent of students who were registered when school closed in the spring, said Superintendent Robert Dooley.
“The district has refurbished laptop computers for about another 33 percent of our students,” Dr. Dooley said. “The district plans to order more Chromebooks to support students with the online learning program.”
“We believe by the number of devices ordered that we will somewhat close the digital divide,” Dr. Dooley said.
Internet access issues
Holbrook Unified and other schools in Arizona’s rural and remote areas face challenges with high-speed internet access.
In Arizona and nationwide, about 30 percent of all public K-12 students live in households that don’t have an internet connection or a device adequate for remote learning, according to Common Sense Media’s 2020 report, “Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a long-documented and persistent inequity affecting students that lack adequate broadband access, the National School Boards Association said in its efforts to support high-speed internet access to narrow the digital divide or homework gap that affects millions of students.
Thirty seven percent of students in rural and remote communities nationwide don’t have adequate connectivity for remote learning, and that includes nearly 35 percent of Native American students, 30 percent of Black students, and 26 percent of Latinx students, according to the Common Sense Media report.
About half of Paloma Elementary School District students have inadequate internet access in their homes in the Gila Bend area, said Superintendent Kristin Turner.
“The mobile hot spots that have been provided seem to do little to provide the internet needed to successfully implement online learning in our rural and remote location,” Supt. Turner said.
Students are often dropped, frozen, or unable to join Google Meet,” Supt. Turner said.
” It becomes more difficult for students when they have siblings trying to access their classrooms at the same time,” Supt. Turner said.
“As a solution for the limited bandwidth available to families, teachers are recording lessons for students who are unable to live-stream the lessons,” Supt. Turner said.
“Less data is used to watch the recorded lesson, but live-streaming is still available for those students who have stronger Wi-Fi signals,” Supt. Turner said.
Paper packets are available for students who have been unsuccessful with live-streamed and recorded online learning, Supt. Turner said.
Ajo Unified purchased some hot spots and has worked with a grant to purchase more, but “we need more than we can purchase at this time, Dr. Dooley said.
About 80 percent of Ajo Unified students qualify for the free- and reduced-price lunch program, and about 30 percent of students do not have Wi-Fi or devices in their homes, Dr. Dooley said.
“If the State of Arizona agencies could work with our internet provider to pay for Wi-Fi for these students’ homes, our students would be more successful,” Dr. Dooley said. “This is a financial challenge for many of our families.”
“This is a time in our state’s history when the rich get richer and the financially challenged suffer,” Dr. Dooley said. “I do not want to be a part of that unsound practice for my students. Helping students in poverty receive a better education, is good business for this state. I want to be a part of that solution.”
Dr. David Dumon, superintendent of Altar Valley Elementary School District that serves students in communities about 20 miles west of Tucson, said, “Over 30 percent of our families do not have access to reliable internet.”
So schools are partnering with their county school superintendents, businesses, organizations, nonprofits and statewide coalitions to solve these issues.
Dr. Dumon has been working with Pima County Superintendent of Schools Dustin Williams’ office and other agencies to find ways to provide reliable internet.
“The Altar Valley School District covers almost 700 square miles, providing reliable internet is long overdue,” Dr. Dumon said.
Although most Sacaton Elementary School District families have reported that they have access to Wi-Fi, we are aware of some students that have limited or no access to Wi-Fi, Dr. Paul said.
“We are currently working with the Gila River Indian Community to see what assistance, if any, they are able to provide our families,” Dr. Paul said.
“On behalf of our families, we need free Wi-Fi for families in rural areas and on all tribal lands in Arizona. This monthly bill, while not much for some families, can be a sacrifice for families that were already struggling financially,” Dr. Paul said.
Holbrook Unified School District is thankful for the 40 hot spots it received from the Navajo Nation, Dr. Koerperich said.
“We are in need of no less than 1,500 (hot spots) to ensure all students are connected. There is much work left to be done in this area,” Dr. Koerperich said.
In addition to the expense and location of hot spots, much of the 1,500-square-miles school district does not have 4G coverage which limits data plans, Dr. Koerperich said.
“Holbrook Unified is working with local internet service providers on and off the Navajo Nation to build partnerships to provide the low-cost internet services,, but the biggest barriers appear to be cost and infrastructure to provide connectivity, Dr. Koerperich said.
“We have placed Wi-Fi locations around all schools that students and families may utilize, but this is not ideal for long periods of learning time (i.e. a school day),” Dr. Koerperich said.
“We need to get connectivity in the homes where the environment is more suitable for learning and access is 24/7,” Dr. Koerperich said.
Narrowing the digital divide
Special education students and English Language Learners who lack internet access and learning devices are at a greater risk for significant gaps in learning, according to School Connect, an organization that helps school leaders build relationships and collaborative partnerships with the faith community, local businesses, universities, nonprofits, government services and other community partners.
School Connect Executive Director Tracey Beal, who serves as a member of Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman’s Technology Task Force, said they’ve focused on understanding how CARES Act Funds and E-Rate Funds can be used by schools to address that digital divide.
“We have heard from education leaders in Wyoming and Utah about the pathway they have taken to successfully address their own digital divide,” Beal said.
Also Supt. Hoffman “sent a letter to Arizona internet providers encouraging them to provide support for the school districts of the communities where they provide service,” Beal said.
“We believe the biggest challenge our families/students face is the financial challenge of paying for in home Wi-Fi and a digital device,” said Dr. Dooley of Ajo Unified School District.
“We believe that the laptops available to students and the recent purchase and distribution of new Chromebooks, that one hurdle facing these students will have been addressed positively. Hot spots will help as well,” Dr. Dooley said.
In addition, the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, the Arizona Broadband Stakeholder Network, School Connect, Common Sense Media, and the Commerce Authority developed a Connect Arizona Web Site that provides a map of free, WiFi hot spots across the state, Beal said.
Connect Arizona Map
“On the site there is a link for free tech support provided by state librarians, information about special discounts by internet providers and a link for community organizations to add their location to the Connect Arizona Map,” Beal said.
Schools also are ensuring that online learning does not widen the achievement gap for low-income, special education and other vulnerable student subgroups.
Sacaton Elementary School District teachers are leading remote learning for their students from their classrooms where as they Zoom, they are showing classrooms decorated and ready for online learning and in-person learning later, Dr. Paul said.
Special education services will be provided according to students Individual Education Plan, and IEP addendum meetings may need to occur to reflect changes due to the new learning environment, Dr. Paul said.
“Related services will need to be discussed as they may not be required when accessing the online curriculum,” Dr Paul said.
To do this, online IEP/RED/MET meetings will be used as much as possible, Dr. Paul said.
“IEP teams may need to meet to discuss if IEP services can be successfully implemented in an online learning environment for students with more intense needs,” Dr. Paul said.
In addition, Sacaton’s Director of Exceptional Student Services and school principals will work together with the online teacher to identify students who may be in need of a special education evaluation, Dr. Paul said.
After Aug. 17, all Ajo Unified students with IEPs will be able to come to campus to have direct instruction with their special education teacher, Dr. Dooley said.
“We believe that this will meet the needs of the IEPs and will help those students who would be challenged by a digital online only educational program,” Dr. Dooley said.
Holbrook Unified provides learning packets, virtual learning and some on-site learning for students with disabilities, Dr. Koerperich said.
“Our special services department incorporates small group and one on one services whenever possible,” Dr. Koerperich said. “We have staff that travel to meet families and students at the nearest learning environment to ensure services are offered.”
More funding could help
It would help if the Arizona Legislature and Arizona Department of Education could provide additional funding for on-site support services for schools who have more students that qualify for free- and reduced-priced meals, more special education students, higher percentages of English Language Learners and for schools located in areas with limited internet options, Supt. Turner said.
“In our community, 96 percent of students qualify for free/reduced lunches, have an IEP, or are an English learner,” Supt. Turner said. “Some students belong to all three of the categories and our latest poll shows parental requests for on-site support services are around two-thirds of our student population.”
Paloma Elementary School District is hiring additional people to monitor students who will be receiving on-site remote learning opportunities, but the dollars will not go far, Supt. Turner said.
“Our ESSER funds were already allocated and approved for a new Emergency Preparedness Coordinator position and personal protective equipment requirements before the executive order to provide on-site support services to a large percentage of our students was made,” Supt. Turner said. “Our district fully understands the reasoning behind on-site support services, but we were not anticipating the huge request from parents.”
“If the threshold for reopening is not met, we will need additional funding to meet the demand of on-site support services while maintaining safe spaces for our students,” Supt. Turner said.
ADE and the state legislature could also work with local internet providers and businesses to provide a more robust internet infrastructure in rural areas, Supt. Turner said.
“One provider currently reaches the majority (not all) of the locations in our district, but it is a mobile service and throttles data usage after certain threshold,” Supt. Turner said. “Unlimited and unthrottled data usage should be a priority for students and teachers experiencing the digital divide.”
Many educators have been balancing their teaching duties with their own family and personal needs, and “some have felt the devastating impact of the virus personally,”, Sacaton‘s Dr. Paul said.
“We need state legislators to continue to advocate on our behalf so that schools have the funding we need to reassure our staff that we have the funding and the systems in place to support any staff that may need to request leave,” Dr. Paul said.
“We need state legislators to continue to advocate and to support any additional funding for the additional staff, resources, technology needs, PPE and other safety related costs,” Dr. Paul said.
Solutions to tech, access issues
Paloma Elementary School District has partnered with a local church to provide a place where parents can bring their students to access free Wi-Fi, Supt. Turner said.
Altar Valley Elementary School District took steps to alleviate the lack of internet and device access their students had so they could successfully take part in online learning.
“One of our solutions was to purchase 200 tablets that have a built-in hotspot. This was mainly due to availability and being able to get these devices before school started,” Dr. Dumon said. “Now that school has started, we are having some compatibility issues that we are working through.”
For example, students using Chromebooks can easily navigate from Google Classroom to Google Meet, but students using tablets are struggling with that, Dr. Dumon said.
“We are hoping to have solution by the end of the week,” Dr. Dumon said.
Businesses could help “by providing spaces for employees to bring a child to access WiFi in safe, socially distanced settings when working from home is not an option,” Paloma Elementary Supt. Turner said.
Holbrook High School is providing students without internet services flash drives that contains the course content equivalent to what is being delivered via online, Dr. Koerperich said.
“Students upload their completed work on to the drive. Holbrook High School support staff will make deliveries/pick-ups at the students’ homes,” Dr. Koerperich said.
“This is something that Holbrook High School is doing to try to bridge the connectivity gap, provide equity in academic service and provide accessibility to a high quality education for all students,” Dr. Koerperich said.
Holbrook Unified also delivers learning packets, which contain the same information students learn online, to any student that is not able to adequately access the online learning platform online.
Parents can pick up learning packets at 27 bus stop locations that also provide school meals, and “teams of staff members deliver packets to our communities to ensure parents and students have access to the learning materials,” Dr. Koerperich said.
“We are also retrofitting a school bus to provide a mobile learning bus that we can take to different communities to provide a learning environment, in a bus, that will accommodate about 20 students at a time,” Dr. Koerperich said.
The mobile learning bus will travel throughout our nine communities to provide an on-bus learning environment equipped with high-speed Wi-Fi, air conditioning, heating, a teacher and technology, Dr. Koerperich said.
“This is a work in progress and we hope to expand this program as we analyze the effectiveness of bringing learning to the communities we serve,” Dr. Koerperich said, noting that the district hopes to expand the program to about four mobile learning buses down the road.
“This is the time to reinvent education to serve more students and more families in better ways,” Dr. Koerperich said.