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Coronavirus Pandemic Spotlights Problems With Online Learning

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Distance learning in the pandemic highlights a problem that experts have warned about for years - some students have good access to the Internet, and others do not. It's called the digital divide. Many districts are about to start the school year with more distance learning, so how can they narrow that divide? Rachel Martin spoke with Nicol Turner Lee, who studies it.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: When you look back at those two, sometimes three, months that students in this country were doing distance learning, what worked and what didn't?

NICOL TURNER LEE: You know, I think, generally, I am in agreement with some of the folks that have looked at this short period time as somewhat of an abject failure for our children. What worked was that, you know, schools had the attention of their households to figure out what to do during a time of crisis. What didn't work was that schools were not necessarily ready to move to an online solution, particularly when they assessed the equity challenges of who had broadband and who did not.

We know that there were probably about 12 to 15 million students that did not have access at all. And in those households that were low income, there were probably about 30% to 35% of those students who did not have access to multiple devices.

MARTIN: So what now? How do we make that better?

TURNER LEE: You know, I think it's important for schools to sort of put together what I call the 21st-century remote access blueprint. What we found out from schools is that they had very little data about who was connected within their districts or around the proximity of a school. I think once they have that data and they determine that, you know, hey, this provider is in our community, maybe that provider doesn't have access to an open hot spot, then it's up to the school district to start thinking about then what do we do about those blind spots?

So, for example in St. Louis, that didn't think about the fact that many of their students on free or reduced-price lunch lived in public housing. And so as a result of that, there was never a conversation to go directly to the public housing property manager and say, hey, can you open up an unlicensed Wi-Fi hot spot, so that our kids who live here can get access? Instead, we saw schools and libraries become what some have now coined digital parking lots, where people would pull up because the library fortunately was able to bolster its signal, and schools were able to broadcast out their wireless maybe three or four hundred feet.

MARTIN: But is that really sustainable? I mean, just seems totally untenable to have these families, you know, crammed with their kids in a car, in a parking lot of a library to just do their basic homework assignments.

TURNER LEE: Oh, no, I agree. I think that at first, it was exciting, but it gets old. We have to look at where these blind spots were in the last two to three months and reimagine education, reimagine learning communities. Can we actually take a vacant space in a, you know, a small storefront retail community and actually bring a classroom or two classrooms to that space to keep those youth sort of together, right? Can we actually think about partnering with a nonprofit organization or a church that may be in the middle of a rural, urban or suburban community where a kid does not have access to walk to a local library and maybe create a mesh network in that sense?

MARTIN: What do you need from the federal government to make that happen?

TURNER LEE: You know, I like to think that moving forward, we may think about a national appropriation the same way we think about our food nutrition centers - right? - and how we give food to the needy through the SNAP program or the TANF program. The challenge is, you know, those are all very partisan in terms of changes in leadership affect that, but we need to do something different to ensure that when we have these types of breakdowns, that schools are not sort of running around themselves trying to figure it out by themselves, that they can tap into resources that allow them to solve these types of problems.

MARTIN: Nicol Turner Lee with the Brookings Institution - she studied digital divides in education for decades. We so appreciate your time and perspective on this. Thank you.

TURNER LEE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.