Emery Unified Confronts ‘Digital Divide’ During Ongoing School Closure
Emery Unified has always been a tiny school district packed with heart and spunk. That much hasn’t changed. But just about everything around it has. On Mar. 16, the EUSD closed its two schools. It’s an unprecedented event now written in its history.
Schools were projected to be closed for just under a month. Nine days later, on Mar. 25, the EUSD announced that schools would be closed through May 1. It didn’t stop there. The third, and most crushing, of these announcements was made on Apr. 3: “Schools would close for the remainder of the school year.”
According to UNESCO, school closures as a result of COVID-19 are impacting 1.6 billion students — that’s over 91 percent of the world’s student population. UNESCO predicts adverse consequences of these closures: interrupted learning, social isolation and a rise in dropout rates are just a few.
The school district now faces potentially longterm challenges in the new world created by the COVID-19 pandemic — and the repercussions of an extended school closure.
Technology, Support & Connectivity Disparities
One such challenge has been addressing a phenomenon fought against by those in education justice, known as the digital divide. The divide is essentially a widening inequity where some students have access to technology, hardware and connectivity, and others do not. It’s a divide that leads to disparities in academic achievement and educational attainment.
A Great Effort for a Greater Need
Against the backdrop of accelerating development, Emeryville is a city that’s still defining its identity. Emery Unified is one the few communities that has remained tight-knit. It’s a place where generations of families have walked its hallways and played on its field. Being sandwiched between the larger school districts in Berkeley and Oakland, EUSD has long fought against being forgotten in the mix.
Anna Yates Elementary (534 students) and Emery High (209 students) share a single site in Emeryville’s Golden Gate neighborhood. The majority of students in EUSD are minorities – roughly 44 percent African American, 25 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian. 22 percent are non-native English speakers.
Today, a little over 80 percent of EUSD students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged households. While just under half of students live in Oakland and nearby counties, the majority of students who live in Emeryville have reported a lack of access of technology, according to EUSD tech coordinator George Somers.
“Technology can be a great equalizer, but you have to have the access.“
Somers immediately noticed the technology disparities at EUSD after transferring from another school district he described as “technology forward.” Having worked in tech education for over 25 years, Somers believes technology can level the playing field in education.
“The digital divide was definitely pronounced and real when I came [to EUSD],” said Somers. “Technology can be a great equalizer, but you have to have the access.“
Somers said both students and the faculty are learning how to work with new technology as part of distance learning, the new mode of academic instruction. The greatest challenges are navigating apps, dealing with hardware failure, keeping students engaged and connecting with students and parents to solve issues.
Since schools closed, EUSD has fixated on finding students who need additional tech support.
On Mar. 30, two weeks after closing its campus, the school district began distributing laptops to students. The tech department initially anticipated a need of 180 devices. The need has since revealed itself to be greater — at least 279 devices have been requested by students. That’s roughly 38 percent of the student population in need.
To date, the tech department has distributed 204 devices to students. The tech department initially received 10 to 15 device requests per day, but that number has tapered off to one to two device requests per day.
The district pulled data from a database tracking which students have devices at home and which students don’t. There’s also been grassroots efforts from individuals like office support specialist Ralannah ‘Coach Ray’ Bryant, who personally called students in need of devices.
Although EUSD has provided access to technology on a one-to-one basis — meaning each student has their own device at school — for the past three years, the tech department has to now wrangle with providing remote tech support. Sometimes that means pulling all-nighters to diagnose technical difficulties. IT specialist Will Fuentes recently worked late into the night to pinpoint why some students were having problems connecting to Zoom.
Emery Unified Goal: One Chromebook Per Child
While both Oakland Unified and Berkeley Unified utilize Chromebooks for their students, EUSD has yet to jump on board. That’s going to all change soon, stated Somers. The school district will unveil its plan to phase out its Windows laptops and pull in funding for new Chromebooks for students. It’ll be a slow process, potentially taking up to three years to complete.
“Emeryville is a very unique community, but there are those in that community who are being prevented from opportunities to access.”
Navdeep Purewal, executive director of core learning at the Alameda County Office of Education, has lived in Emeryville herself for the past five years. Over the past couple of months, the Office of Education has met with chief academic officers and superintendents from each of the 18 school districts in Alameda County.
Purewal learnt EUSD continues to experience issues with access to the internet, WiFi hotspots or to technology itself. She’s heard stories of families attempting to connect with cable companies for internet service, but not being able to reach them. “I feel like it stems from the underlying barriers that exist,” said Purewal. “I think there’s a divide in getting that access started.”
Roadblocks faced by low-income & students of color exacerbated by COVID-19
The digital divide itself has been prevalent in schools for many decades, disproportionally impacting low-income and communities of color. “The digital divide isn’t a new indicator of the inequities our communities have already been experiencing,” said Justine Santos, organizing director for Californians for Justice. “It’s another sign of the need to bring racial justice and equity into our communities. This crisis is intensifying that.”
From Mar. 26 to Apr. 1, the Education Trust-West, a group advocating for educational justice, and Global Strategy Group, a public research and relations firm, surveyed 1,200 Californian parents on school closures and COVID-19. The poll found 50 percent of low-income families and 42 percent of families of color lack sufficient devices at home needed for distance learning.
Parents reported they were most concerned about lack of access to devices, lack of reliable and high-speed internet (38 percent of low-income families reported this), lack of support for non-native English speakers, lack of support for children with learning disabilities and the need to close technological barriers.
According to data compiled by Education Trust-West, Emery Unified faces more of a digital divide — more so than Berkeley Unified and less so than Oakland Unified — than surrounding school districts. 57 percent of EUSD students who lack access to the Internet are either students of color or low-income. That’s more than one in two students experiencing the digital divide.
The Education Trust-West made recommendations at both the policy and school district levels. The group advised school districts to reach out to families most affected by the digital divide and survey their needs, facilitate conversations with state leaders about resource allocation and communicate with local philanthropical, utility and tech entities about potential local partnerships to target digital resources.
“I anticipate more families who might not have access to the internet,” said EUSD superintendent Dr. Quiauna Scott. “There’s been a lot of collaboration and innovation with our staff to make sure we’re providing the most optimal support given the circumstances we’re currently in.”
State forms Digital Divide Task Force; ISP’s Vow More Support
According to Common Sense Media’s Homework Gap Report (2019), broadband internet access is essential for students to do schoolwork at home. 41 percent of 9th through 12th grade teachers assign homework at least once a week that require access to digital devices — and that was before COVID-19.
Lack of access to infrastructure, like public libraries and schools, and costs are known challenges in bridging the “homework gap,” which Common Sense Media describes as “the divide between students who have home access to broadband internet and the digital tools needed to be academically successful, and those who do not.” Because of COVID-19, the very infrastructure needed to close the gap are now closed themselves.
“Institutional poverty, racism and the division of resources have left some people behind and without resources,” said Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media. “That’s a huge inequity in this time of digital learning.”
In a recent op-ed, Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer lambasted the federal government for not allocating a penny to bridging the digital divide in schools in its recent $2.2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. “Congress should also invest $1 billion to $2 billion for emergency broadband service to ensure low-income families have enough connectivity at a price they can afford during this crisis,“ wrote Steyer in the op-ed.
Considering the disparities in households that have access to technology, Steyer isn’t overreacting. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found only 18 percent of U.S. adults living in lower-income households have home broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer and a tablet, compared to 64 percent of adults living in high-earning households.
In California, roughly one in five students lack high-speed internet or a device at home. California currently ranks 41st, among the lowest in the nation, in its per-pupil spending. For being the fifth largest economy in the world, surpassing that of the U.K.’s, many believe California has invested an abysmal amount in its schools.
On Apr. 20, Gov. Newsom announced the California Public Utilities Commission will allocate $30 million to ensure school districts can provide internet access and devices for distance learning. Hundreds of thousands of households will also be provided with internet access and over 70,000 students across the state will receive devices like laptops, Chromebooks and tablets.
The City of Sacramento is making even further strides by converting and deploying seven transit buses to be used as super hot spots. It’s a strategy EUSD has considered, but the school district doesn’t have buses (only a few vans), and it could be risky leaving their vehicles unaccommodated.
On Apr. 16, state Superintendent Tony Thurmond announced the creation of a task force to address California’s digital divide. The task force, aptly named Closing the Digital Divide Task Force, will tackle access to both the Internet and devices. Most recently, the task force held a live Facebook broadcast on Apr. 20 to introduce the task force’s goals. Presenting representatives from Comcast, Verizon and AT&T vowed to contribute dollars and services to the task force’s initiatives.
In a letter to Oakland officials like Mayor Libby Schaaf, Oakland Education Association demanded “internet for all” and “city-wide free public WiFi.” The letter, already signed by more than 340 people, claimed internet programs provided by Comcast, AT&T and Xfinity “have long wait times, aren’t taking appointments, require credit cards or other resources that undocumented families cannot provide, or promise one free month of access only to later start charging families for a service they can’t afford.”
EUSD has been relying on Comcast to provide students and teachers with free or low-cost internet in their homes. But students have already been falling through the cracks. Tech coordinator George Somers recalled hearing from a student recently that their family’s internet had been completely cut off.
As the school district scrambles to equip its most in-need students with the tools necessary to continue their classes, the question remains as to how students, especially those who have lacked access to technology, will come out on the other side.
“This experience will definitely change the educational landscape for us,” said EUSD superintendent Dr. Quiauna Scott. “It’ll change our understanding of the need of technology for our students and how we might further mitigate the digital divide.”
Photos by Sarah Belle Lin.