Learn from Home Task Force Takes on Equity and Coronavirus for Distance Schooling

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More than 185,000 book packages and 60,000 laptops will be purchased and distributed to students in the state’s 33 lowest performing school districts by the Governor’s COVID-19 Learn from Home Task force in an effort to bridge the widening achievement and equity gap during the extended school closures.

“Few things are more important to Governor Lamont than a fair and equitable response to remote learning,” said Nick Simmons, the manager of strategic initiatives for the Governor’s office. “It’s no secret that we have a very wide achievement gap that could get wider by six months away from school. There are so many inequities that are inside the achievement gap, but many are driven by the disparities that children face at home.”

These 33 districts include 63 percent of Connecticut’s students of color, 65 percent of the state’s low-income students and 76 percent of the state’s English Learners.

“We know students coming from these areas with poverty don’t have devices in their home or the resources in their home to continue learning,” said Nathan Quesnel, superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools and the co-chair of the task force. “But these kids are brilliant, able talented when they are given the resources that they deserve. It is a challenge we can look at, struggle with or we can solve.”

The goal of the laptops and book packages – which are being paid for by donations from the Partnership for Connecticut and Nooyi Family – is not only to help all students continue their education during the COVID-19 outbreak, even if their family does not have access to computers or internet regularly, but to end the digital divide between districts.

A missing two months

“Remote learning is part of the 21st century school. We have looked at how this will help close the achievement gap in the long term,” Simmons said.

Unfortunately, there is no way to make up for lost time for current students.

In places like Lyme-Old Lyme and Region 4, where all students already had 1:1 chrome books or laptops, remote education began within days of school closures.

“We were well prepared because of the support we’ve had in the community over the years that allowed every kid to have a device already,” said Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme schools.

In New London and New Haven, on the other hand, teachers are struggling with the fact that many of their students do not have the ability to complete assignments or participate in virtual learning at home and that no work can be mandatory.

“It is not anyone’s fault, so please know that your students will not be held accountable for not being able to access learning. Do whatever you can to support learning at home,” wrote Iline Tracey, New Haven superintendent of schools to district parents. “Our staff cannot go back in the schools to copy materials, and we will have to increase our online activities for students.”

In New London, school administrators are working to loan out equipment to families in need to cover the intervening time before the new laptops from the taskforce arrive.

“Teachers understand that students may not always be able to attend their Office Hours/Live Lessons but will track student participation,” wrote Tommy Thompson, the director of Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Professional Development, to all middle and high school students. “NLPS staff is aware that students may have to share devices to do their work. Teachers will assign essential work in Edgenuity/Google Classroom and will be flexible about when that work is due.”

According to the task force, the earliest date laptops for Alliance District students could arrive is the beginning of May. For students stuck at home, unable to access remote learning, May or June may seem like an eternity away.

“We are very much considering the distribution of devices the immediate step. We know there are students who don’t have devices at their disposal,” said Paul Freeman, the superintendent of Guilford public schools and the other co-chair of the task force. “If a student doesn’t have a device they can’t access what the state department or their district has compiled.”

For those students losing two or more months of education there is much to decide and consider. Whether or not to provide summer education or how to determine eligibility to progress to the next grade are questions the state will be wrestling with for the months, Quesnel said. Ultimately, he said, it will be up to the districts what to do for their students.  

“When we return to school, whether it’s this year or next, there will need to be a lot more dialogue about catching up,” Freeman said.

A focus on health and safety

Although the Learn from Home Taskforce is working to help all students continue their education from home, they stressed again and again that their number one goal is health and safety.

“It is our number one priority here, above everything else that we are trying to accomplish,” said Desi Nesmith, the Deputy Commissioner of the State Department of Education.

This week as Alliance districts apply to the task force to receive books and laptops, they must indicate how they would distribute these materials safely during COVID-19 social distancing precautions.

“This would be a logistical challenge in a perfect environment, obviously these weeks are less than a perfect environment,” Freeman said.  “Their application must include how the distribution would work to promote safety.”

The plan is to distribute the HP and Dell devices during the months of May and June to districts based on need – districts with the most students in need will receive laptops first.

“Obviously supply chains are very short right now given that there is a global pandemic,” Simmons said. “Shipments could come in much later than what is typical.”

In an attempt to help student’s access educational materials for the time being, the State Department of Education and the Governor’s Office are working with AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and T-mobile to offer public hotspots and increased data availability at no cost across Connecticut.

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