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Learning Curve

Julie Saetre  | Aug 03, 2020

Learning Curve

The “digital divide” — the gap between those who have access to the internet, personal computers and other forms of information and communications technology and those who don’t — already presented a formidable obstacle to education equality before the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden switch to remote learning sent the situation into overdrive.

The Pew Research Center reports that across the United States, some 15% of homes with school-age children lack internet access. Some families take a harder hit. A 2019 report by the National Center for Education Statistics states that nearly 20% of African American children ages 3-18 — and 21% of families earning less than US$40,000 per year — have no home internet access.

It’s not just a North American problem. No matter where in the world children live, those on the wrong side of the digital divide are most likely to suffer the consequences from school closures, says Borhene Chakroun, director of the division of policies and lifelong learning systems for The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The pandemic has forced school closures in 191 countries, affecting a staggering 1.5 billion students. And half of those learners — nearly 830 million — don’t have access to a household computer. Forty-three percent lack home internet access.

UNESCO reports that in Europe, 14% of households do not have access to the internet, and 22% lack a computer. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 90% of students have no access to computers, and 82% have no way to get online.

Then there are the students who already had barriers to education — from poverty and geographical remoteness to disabilities, displacement and exposure to child labor, violence and other adverse conditions.

Kiwanians shouldn’t be daunted by the sheer scope of the need. In fact, the numbers show that wherever your club is located, you will find kids, parents and teachers who need your help.

In April 2020, the Southern Education Foundation released a brief, “Distance Learning During COVID-19: 7 Equity Considerations for Schools and Districts,” highlighting initial areas to address: reaching students who don’t have internet access; helping students gain that access and other necessary technology; supporting English-language learners and students with special needs; identifying and providing needed wraparound services; supporting teachers; addressing mental health needs of students and teachers; and supporting parents’ roles in distance learning.

No community is the same, so before you set out to tackle all seven considerations, find out exactly where your club’s commitment is needed.

“For some communities, materials and Wi-Fi access are the main issues,” advises Titilayo Tinuba Ali, director of research and policy for the Southern Education Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit that works to advance equitable education policies and practices for low-income students and students of color in 17 southern states, “and for others, digital literacy is a challenge, where teachers and families may need volunteers to help them navigate tech challenges through a hotline. Consider doing a community survey or assessment to see what’s needed and how you can be supportive.”

Once you know your service goals, use these tips to meet them.

Reaching those without internet access. While most Kiwanians can’t commit to wiring residences, they still can bring the internet (and its access to knowledge) within reach.

“We have seen districts implementing some creative partnerships with community organizations and shelters to help meet the needs of these students,” Ali says. “We’ve seen solutions like partnerships with local print shops to provide printed materials to students without internet access and deploying vans or buses equipped with Wi-Fi to get students connected, and community centers themselves can serve as Wi-Fi hubs.”

Another option: lower-tech formats. Before the internet existed, for example, children learned via educational television programming.

Check with your school system, your city’s public access television station or the local Public Broadcasting System channel to see if volunteers are needed to support educational programming on- or off-air.

Helping with hands-on tech. Kiwanis clubs around the world already have stepped up with donations of tablets and laptops to schools and students in need. Because technology never stands still, even if your district distributed technology a few years ago, it could be outdated for today’s lessons.  

And remember: what works for younger students might not be functional for older learners.

Supporting special needs. Helping children with autism, those with special needs and English language learners often comes down to being there for their parents or guardians.

“The first step is acknowledging these different challenges and truly seeing and considering parents and families of all types,” advises Ali. “Then look to support parents and caregivers in your community in the ways they most need. That may look like serving as volunteer tutors where there are work, time or other structural barriers to parents and family members being able to assist with lessons. Additionally, families who do not speak English at home may appreciate support from volunteers who could serve as interpreters or translators.”

Making wraparound services available. Many students rely on the food they receive at school to feed their families. So those food drives that Kiwanis family members have been holding since the pandemic began will continue to be key. Children and families who needed food, clothing, toiletries and other basics of life before COVID-19 will continue to do so. And with pandemic-related job losses, those essential items are even more in demand.

Lending a helping hand to teachers. A typical distance-learning day for some teachers begins at 7 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t end until 10 or 11 p.m. Distance learning requires not only time for learning new tech, but leading virtual group classes, meeting remotely with students for one-on-one problem-solving, coaching kids for exam prep and more.

Help a teacher through virtual volunteerism. Mentor or tutor a student in need or offer to be a guest speaker during a remote class meeting.

Addressing emotional needs. “Students and teachers alike may be dealing with feelings of isolation, increased responsibility of caring for family members, changes in family income, death and other challenges,” says Ali. “Holding virtual wellness days for teachers with activities like yoga, mindfulness and support circles and making virtual guidance counselors or community mentors available are all ways to serve your community. Expanded learning, after-school and summer programs also give a real opportunity to work as allies with schools and provide some continuity with social and emotional support.”

Being there for parents. Just as teachers can use virtual volunteers, parents also face overwhelming demands. Kiwanis, CKI and Key Club members ease the burden by tutoring, shopping for groceries, running errands, doing yard work and other forms of service that let parents focus on their family and work responsibilities.

Bridging the digital divide won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But it will bring a new world of unprecedented educational opportunities.

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