We Must Break Digital Barriers for Students to Succeed
By Dr. Damien Pattenaude, Superintendent of Renton School District, and Ellen Dorr, Chief Technology Officer of Renton School District
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, our educators and administrators were working to remove barriers, including reducing the digital divide facing many of our students. Renton School District serves around 15,000 students in South King County, many of whom live in communities who have faced historical and systemic inequities which have barred them from essential resources such as grocery stores, health care and education. As our students began the school year from their homes instead of the classroom, the need to overcome digital inequities became even more apparent. If we cannot come together to overcome these obstacles, we risk failing in our obligation to support our students in growing into their full potential.
The transition to virtual learning has increased challenges faced by our families and required them to acquire digital resources that would have otherwise been accommodated for at school. Often, devices or digital services essential to a productive online learning experience are too expensive for the families that we serve. For families with multiple children, a lack of devices forces siblings to share with one another. Even when families have access to multiple devices, this puts a greater strain on home Internet, reducing its quality and speed. This is further impacted when parents are also using WiFi to work from home. Home connectivity proves to be one of the most challenging areas to address.
Our response to COVID-19 has aimed to alleviate several challenges of digital inequity. Before the pandemic, we began to increase the number of Chromebooks made available for students; we had a 1:1 model in grades 6-12, meaning every student in those grades had their own device. We have since ramped up those efforts and have also been able to provide at least one device to every elementary family, with the goal of being 1:1 in all grades next school year. Additionally, our staff are conducting home visits, making sure that their families are appropriately set up to support their children’s educational needs. A number of parents are unfamiliar with how to set up their Internet or hardware devices to ensure their children are able to participate in the classroom. By connecting with parents, our staff are easing those struggles to make learning as accessible and as engaging as possible.. Families are stretching to make sure their children are being taken care of and given the resources they need to excel, while juggling jobs and other responsibilities. By improving access to educational opportunities, we are hoping to do as much as we can to provide families relief.
All In WA is helping us bridge the gap in digital resources to help parents and students overcome the hardships of COVID-19. Supported by Washington’s public, private and philanthropic sectors, their Digital Equity Initiative is providing necessary funding that we can use to improve internet access and increase the number of digital devices made available to students. Amazon has most recently donated $100,000 directly for Renton School District. Students deserve access to quality education. Parents deserve to be supported in caring for their children. We will continue to tackle educational inequality to ensure that our students are connected to academic opportunity. Together, we can close Renton’s digital divide and help students succeed.