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Closing the K-12 digital divide in the post-pandemic age

Closing the K-12 digital divide in the post-pandemic age

Published in the St. Pete Catalyst’s Community Voices

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way our students learn. Remote learning is here to stay. Regardless of whether students are learning remotely fulltime or part-time, Covid has taught us that learning without access to the internet puts students and families at a real disadvantage. Beyond learning itself, the ability to track a student’s progress, communicate with teachers and access additional resources all require new tools and the knowledge to use them.

As students continue learning online or in hybrid formats, school administrators, teachers, students, and families need to reimagine education through a lens of digital equity. For the Pinellas Education Foundation and Pinellas County Schools (PCS), bridging the digital learning divide successfully means removing barriers to the access and use of technology tools while accelerating the academic success of youth from diverse backgrounds.

Well before the start of the pandemic, and with a grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, the Pinellas Education Foundation started a pilot project giving families broadband internet devices to help close the homework gap caused by the lack of reliable internet access in the home. Once the pandemic hit and the classroom transitioned to 100% remote learning, the need for reliable internet access grew exponentially. But the Foundation had spotted a troubling trend with the initial pilot group: When learning became 100% dependent on internet access, usage of the devices decreased substantially, leading the Foundation and District leadership to ponder, “How can we better help families?”

The Foundation and district responded by creating the Family E-Learning Coaching program. To start, PCS distributed 65,500 laptops to students in grades 3 to 10. Another 28,000 devices will be distributed this summer and fall for in-class and at-home learning. And, with expansion of its one-to-one digital device initiative, the need for ongoing technology coaching has increased.

Since September 2021, Family E-Learning Coaching has provided free and reliable high-speed home internet access and technology coaching to 180 individuals. Students and their caregivers receive access to free Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops, using flexible multimodal and multilingual instruction. The initiative aims to provide more tools to support learning anytime, anywhere.

For one local mother, the Family E-Learning Coaching project means that both of her daughters are equipped with PCS Connects devices and internet access. In-home coaching sessions have taught them all new digital literacy skills. Mom can monitor her daughters’ grades and attendance online. She can also use the “Clever” platform to check out digital textbooks and monitor her children’s reading development using PCS applications.

By having internet access, computers, and knowledge of the PCS apps, her children have a better future, she said.

Raylee Fleisch, an e-learning coach with the Pinellas Education Foundation, says connecting families with technology is truly rewarding. “Our PCS students and families are fortunate to have such great technology resources available to them. The collaboration between our schools, e-learning coaches, media and technology departments, and the Foundation has made this program a success.”

The Family E-Learning Coaching program is available to students, parents and caregivers who have a student in the K-12 system in Pinellas County. The program is designed to set up families with free internet hotspots and provide training on Clever, Canvas and other PCS platforms. Coaches can also help with completing online scholarship applications available through the Pinellas Education Foundation.

The program includes home visits and assistance via phone, email and chat, and is available during evenings and on weekends as well as regular business hours.

Family E-Learning Coaching is funded by contributions from the Tampa Bay Resiliency Fund (a collaboration between the Pinellas Community Foundation, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, Allegany Franciscan Ministries and United Way Suncoast); Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg; W. K. Kellogg Foundation through the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations; TD SYNNEX; Suncoast Credit Union Foundation; and the David and Virginia Baldwin Foundation through the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, among other generous supporters.

For more information about this initiative, please visit https://www.pcsb.org/FamilyEcoaching.