Digital divide complicates distance learning for Mpls public schools

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Living, learning and working under COVID-19 has been challenging for everyone, especially when it comes to practicing social distancing and staying at home. Adjusting to this new reality is especially complicated if your mission is to educate 36,000 children and transition nearly 6,400 employees to telework, almost overnight.

For Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), this unprecedented situation has put into action a monumental effort to get devices and learning packets into the hands of students as quickly as possible. The biggest challenges facing the district have been the logistics for identifying which students need devices and internet access and then delivering these tools quickly.

The first eight days of Governor Tim Walz’s executive order to close schools provided time for districts to formulate a plan to deliver educational services. But this meant developing a distance learning program in two weeks that would typically take months, if not years, to accomplish.

As defined by the state, distance learning is “access to appropriate educational materials and daily interaction with their licensed teacher(s).” Since MPS is not a 1-to-1 district—meaning each child has not previously been provided their own tablet or computer to use as part of their everyday learning experience—ensuring students have devices and internet access has been a top priority.

While many nearby districts already had a 1-1 model in place, MPS’ ongoing cycle of budget cuts had placed such a model out of reach. With the advent of COVID-19, this dilemma has put the digital divide in stark relief.

MPS estimates that around one-third of students don’t have access to a computer, and perhaps half of those don’t have access to the internet. In response, the district first turned to safely harvesting and packaging its current supply of devices from schools to distribute to students. It then supplemented that inventory by ordering new devices and internet hotspots.

Further complicating the task of delivering devices has been the accuracy of family contact information. Reliable home addresses, phone numbers, and emails are essential to delivering technology to students in such a short time. The district is asking any family who has not yet been in touch with their students’ teacher to call their school immediately to update their information.

Nevertheless, by leveraging its fleet of school buses and routes, MPS had delivered more than 4,000 devices to students by the end of the first week of distance learning.

By April 17, it estimates it will have made a first delivery stop to all students who need devices and will begin the second round of deliveries to those who didn’t receive them yet. MPS wants to reassure families that their students will not be penalized for not doing school work during this transition time.

MPS started its official distance learning on April 6 after students returned from spring break. As a stopgap until students get the technology they need, they are being provided with standards-based paper learning packets that are also delivered door to door along with physical education supplies like balls, hula hoops, jump ropes, and fun ideas for keeping active.

Parallel efforts have been underway to ensure students get food and nutrition during this time. Since March 17, the first day of MPS school closures, it has provided 150,000 meals through 50 school sites by distributing food from school buses while buildings are closed.

With life under COVID-19 evolving rapidly, and determining logistics around how to manage matters such as proms, graduation and grading is ongoing, MPS encourages families to access the most current information by regularly visiting their website at mpls.k12.mn.us and to click on the COVID-19 Response Plan.

Families who can’t access the internet should call their school to get connected to the resources they need.

And while no one knows what exactly the new normal will be after COVID-19, it seems a possible upside to all of it is that the digital divide will have narrowed significantly for MPS students.

—Information provided by MPS. Find more info by going to https://online.mpls.k12.mn.us/index.aspx

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