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Covid 19 Virus Reveals Gross Inequities in Education Technology

As schools closed overnight— most for the rest of the spring semester— and teachers across the country were tasked with rapidly creating effective and comprehensive curricula to be delivered virtually to students, the truth became apparent quickly.

Equity and fair access to educational technology is horribly disparate throughout our country. Big gaps exist— in funding, equipment, bandwidth, teacher training, tech support, and more— within and among schools, districts, and states.

It’s not like we didn’t know it existed. And it’s not like we haven’t been talking about it for decades. But clearly, we still have a long way to go to implement, fund, and support even the most basic technologies our students need. The sudden closing of most schools to prevent the spread of the Covid 19 virus has just brought these issues to the forefront.

And, frankly, we have a lot of work to do to fill these gaps equitably and quickly for our students.

In 1990, I was one of 50 teachers brought to Washington, DC, by Apple Computers. We were asked how we saw technology being used effectively by teachers and students in the future. Right away we pointed out that costs to provide computers to students were prohibitive. My award gift, a Macintosh SE, cost over $1,000. As a collective voice of teachers using the “new” technology, we raised issues about equity. That was 30 years ago.

In 1994, I joined  Milken Educator Award honorees in Los Angeles to share the vision for using technology effectively and innovatively in schools. Future challenges included issues with bandwidth, hard-wiring old schools, and continued high cost for providing sufficient computers for our students.

Much of this problem has been a budget issue that challenged the old paradigm of classroom equipment. Once a chalkboard was installed in a classroom, it didn’t need replacing for a decade, at least. A desktop computer was different. It needed to be upgraded or replaced every few years. School budgets still worked on the old model: School A got 20 computers, and they didn’t get more until we bought 20 computers for Schools B, C, and D. It is ironic that the biggest influx of new computers in the schools this past decade came as a result of the advent of the Common Core Standards and its required computer testing.

Extraordinary efforts have been made by teachers, administrators, business leaders, and community members in the past 30 years to provide technology resources for our students. Countless grants and legislative requests have been written to address this issue.

But think about it. If grants and legislative requests are the way schools are obtaining needed technology, the competitive nature of those funding sources assumes there are “have” and “have-not” schools— winners and losers— the American way.

But NOT the equitable way. And as educators, we want each of our students to have fair, equitable access to learning.

And now, this national teaching situation— brought on by the Covid 19 pandemic with all students suddenly needing access to computers and the internet— is shining an unflattering light on big, unfair gaps in access and equity for our students.

Districts, such as my own— Albuquerque Public Schools— realized that thousands of students did not have devices at home for virtual instruction. The district handed out 18,000 Chromebooks a few weeks ago to cars of students and parents coming to get these precious devices.

Many teachers, including me, have rapidly learned how to use platforms that allow dialogue, sharing of materials, and submission of homework electronically. School districts, such as my four grandchildren’s in Oklahoma, have realized that computers have to be shared in families that often have only one device and have scheduled classes at staggered times.

But these changes have come with a cost. According to a recent article in the Albuquerque Journal, attendance in some teachers’ virtual classrooms is down 20% or more. Why? Lack of access? Lack of devices? Lack of at-home support?

Many educators were behind the curve on the use of technology for the virtual classroom and have had little training in this platform, resulting in even more alone-ness. And teachers who knew this new teaching method have been elevated to trainers and tech support, most as volunteers to help their colleagues. The burnout and fatigue among educators right now is pervasive and not sustainable.

In areas with poverty, the problems are worse. In New Mexico, we have thousands of students who live on the Navajo reservation. Students live in homes with no electricity and no running water; for them, water is literally driven in once a week to fill a tank used sparingly for dishes, cooking, and hand-washing. Those students, once home, certainly don’t have access to the internet.

Poor families cannot afford to add devices and internet access in homes where the family income from service industries is now non-existent.

One teacher I know lives in a small village in northern New Mexico, surrounded by 12,000-foot peaks; she drives to her local post office parking lot daily to access their wi-fi so she can teach her lessons and answer her email. Internet access has never been available where she lives.

Some intrepid teachers in New Mexico have written a letter to our Public Education Department asking for limited access to their classrooms to retrieve materials needed for lessons, more technological support, and additional training to implement virtual learning. Congress is now considering a $2 billion E-rate boost for schools to support the technology needed to reach more kids.

These measures may help, but there is much more to do.

Perhaps one lesson we will learn from this pandemic is that our efforts to provide a fair, equitable, and quality education to all our students must include workable, funded, and feasible programs for the full integration of technology in our schools. Now is the time to reinvigorate a dialogue that I have been part of for the past 30 years. Our students are worth it.


Pat S. Graff, NBCT, taught for 38 years in the Albuquerque Public Schools before retiring. She was New Mexico’s Teacher of the Year in 1993 and one of four national finalists. In 2006, she was the first New Mexico teacher inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame. Currently she works with over 40 teachers doing National Board Certification in northern New Mexico.





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