We Must Close Digital Access Gaps so Students Can Excel
By Dr. Tracey Beckendorf-Edou, Superintendent of Cascade School District
Our students come from a diverse set of communities throughout the Cascade Mountain range from orchard communities near the mountain’s base, to densely forested areas, to places near the upper regions of the mountain. Our beautiful location is part of what makes our communities so unique, but what is lesser known are the challenges it poses with digital access for our families and students, particularly as remote learning continues during the pandemic. Digital access is a critical part of making sure students are supported in their learning and can keep up with school. COVID-19 requires us to develop urgent, creative solutions that can be applied to specific barriers that students living in different areas face. Unless we can overcome these educational challenges, rural students will miss out on essential opportunities to grow and learn. We cannot risk the personal development of Cascade children.
We support approximately 1,300 PreK-12 students. Much of the difficulty that our school officials grapple with comes from the physical diversity of the communities that their students come from. Digital inequities here can be framed through two lenses: affordability and availability. Virtual learning requires students to have an assortment of resources, specifically hardware devices such as iPads or laptops. Additionally, there are areas throughout the Cascade Mountains where Internet access is unavailable or spotty. Densely forested areas, for example, force students to seek other areas outside of their home where WiFi may be available. It can be difficult for families without Internet to drive their children to areas with access; and even more so difficult for students who have to bike to areas because their parents are working.
Nonetheless, our educators, administrators and communities have worked tirelessly to make sure every student is given a fair opportunity at academic achievement. From increasing the number of WiFi access points and personal hotspots to working with surrounding Internet providers like LocalTel to provide Internet access where available, we are tackling digital access challenges in ways that address digital inequity long term and ensure that students are supported.
All In WA’s Digital Equity Initiative is helping supply districts like ours with essential resources to accommodate the unique challenges that impact our communities. From providing hardware devices to improving internet access, the Digital Equity Initiative helps to tackle the underrepresented and critical challenges of our rural environment. Rural and remote students deserve to have their concerns addressed in an effective and substantive way that ensures long-lasting support. We want our students to be acknowledged, not forgotten – and digital access is an essential part of seeing to it that they can grow, learn, and succeed long-term.