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Digital Divide 

The pandemic has laid bare inequities for public school students trying to learn at home.

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Frustrations with online learning resources during the COVID-19 pandemic have left many students, teachers and parents in central Virginia public school systems staring at a spinning wheel icon and wondering how to load their resources.

As teachers and parents struggle to help children navigate online learning at home, issues related to poverty, including lack of access and technological resources, have become more pronounced.

Graham Sturm, who teaches history at Richmond’s Armstrong High School, says he has not been able to contact many of his students through typical school communication avenues. He has resorted to searching for students across all social media platforms and word-of-mouth methods.

One mother of a Richmond Public School middle school student enrolled in three high school courses says that lack of consistent internet coverage has been “extra hard” for her daughter. The mother, who wished to remain anonymous, says her daughter has a smartphone so “she’s been able to do her work so far,” but they are still waiting on the Chromebook and hot spot they requested.

Jackie Brown, the mother of two Henrico County Public School students, understands that teachers are stressed and appreciates their efforts to provide an equitable education, but “my kids and I are still extremely stressed and defeated at this point,” she says.

Teachers and parents are struggling as communication with district administrations has become exponentially more difficult.

“We are required to plan and create the work for students, but it feels like we are throwing a Frisbee to no one,” says Krysti Albus, a Charles City County public school teacher and parent of two Henrico students. “I know my son’s teachers probably feel the same way.” 

While Richmond administrators rolled out a program called RPS@Home on April 10, providing a daily schedule with instructional videos for grades pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and online learning modules for high school courses, not everyone has a laptop and basic issues remain involving access to the internet.  

 Unlike Richmond students, Chesterfield and Henrico children received laptops at the beginning of the school year. In an effort to ensure that city students have access, city School Superintendent Jason Kamras announced the district is purchasing nearly 10,000 laptops for students to use at a total cost of $3.5 million. Seniors who requested a laptop at an online link were able to pick them up April 14.  

Teachers, parents and education advocates agree the pandemic has worsened an already deep economic and educational divide, noting the students who need laptops the most are unable to even be notified of their availability. Carrie Kahwajy, an education advocate and parent of a Chesterfield student, echoes this sentiment: “If someone didn’t have access from the beginning, how do they know to request the content?”

Beginning April 14, Henrico schools implemented a program providing optional content for students to complete. Starting May 6, students in high school classes will be required to complete online modules to receive full credit for their classes.

In a statement sent to Henrico students and families and posted on the district’s website, School Superintendent Amy Cashwell explained “some of it is considered optional for students. Other parts may be required, depending on their grade level and circumstances.”

The state superintendent of public instruction, James Lane, explains that his office sent out guidance to school systems stating that students who were on track to move onto the next course as of March 13 should pass. If the schools want to hold the students accountable to complete the extra work, Lane says, they still should receive credit and be promoted. Schools can denote the credit with an asterisk that work was not completed, to be removed upon completion.

Internet access is still a concern for teachers and education advocates in the city and across the counties. Henrico did an in-school survey prior to dismissal to find out which students would need hot spots at home. According to its website, Comcast is providing free access to all of its hot spots, even for those who are not Comcast customers. 

Lane’s office launched partnerships April 13 with four public broadcast stations across Virginia that will be broadcasting material each day to students for free. He also says that it has expanded the Virtual Virginia platform, which allows students and teachers to download materials and use them offline.

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