Oakland has made gains by bridging the digital divide during COVID. Classroom technology could be here to stay

Over a year ago, the City of Oakland, together with Oakland Unified School District and a group of nonprofit partners, launched the Oakland Undiveded Campaign with an ambitious goal: to bridge the digital divide by raising enough money to buy laptops and Internet access points for each student. in Oakland who needed it during the pandemic. Back then, public school students had to learn at home virtually, but about 25,000 of them in Oakland did not have a computer, a reliable internet, or both.

As schools loaned out their own stocks of aging Chromebooks while waiting for the new Oakland Undived devices, teachers and other school leaders quickly realized that bridging the digital divide required more than just handing out laptops and of hotspots. Learning was completely online, as was the way schools communicate with families, said Jaymie Lollie, community schools manager at the Frick United Academy of Language.

“Families went from an experience where, at the time of pickup, we gave them a flyer or we had a chat with you, to anything that was a type of online communication, Lollie said. “It was a huge change for our parents.”

Today, as students prepare to return to their full-time classrooms in the fall, nearly 97% of students in the Oakland Unified School District have a computer and a working Internet connection at home, including 98% of low-income students, according to neighborhood data. But as the pandemic has drawn attention to the digital divide, which Oakland Undiveded has helped alleviate, educators say the gaps are not yet closed.

“My biggest fear is that people will be excited and celebrating, and not realize that you must continue to work collectively to resolve deep systemic inequalities,” OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said at a celebration in Oakland Undivided earlier this month. “It’s a great first step, but we still have a lot to do. “

Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell hands a new Chromebook to 13-year-old Coliseum College Prep Academy student Diana Zapata in the schoolyard on August 17, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

This job involves maintaining the inventory of laptops in the district and ensuring that all schools have enough for each student. This summer, OUSD launched a high school internship program to gain experience in repairing computers while refurbishing the school district’s Chromebook fleet. It also means continuing to provide technical support to families, regardless of their familiarity with the technology.

Before the pandemic, many families at Frick United primarily accessed the internet using cell phones, and those with tablets or computers were the exception, Lollie said. As families received their Chromebooks, Frick’s deputy manager walked them through the process of setting up, building favorite websites, signing in to Gmail, and other basic functions. The school also made more than 600 home visits during the year, many of which involved dropping off laptops and showing how to use them, Lollie said. While their support during the school year was aimed at helping students complete their homework in class, Lollie added that future sessions could focus on how the whole family can benefit from technology.

“The continued need to access Chromebooks and Wi-Fi doesn’t go away because learning happens in person,” Lollie said. “For students, the possibility of continuing their education, doing their homework or just exploring may have ceased the moment they left our walls and now it shouldn’t stop. Now they have access to it when they need it.

Expanding broadband access

The Oakland Reach, a parent advocacy group involved in the Oakland Undived campaign, worked with Sydewayz Cafe, an information technology company in Oakland, to provide technical support to the organization’s virtual family center during the pandemic . In the fall, The Oakland Reach plans to launch a scholarship to give students and their families more intensive training in technology and digital platforms, said executive director Lakisha Young. They also helped families get a federal discount on broadband service.

As a partner of Oakland Undiveded, the group will participate in discussions about extending high-speed Wi-Fi access to families in Oakland. Hotspots, which can be limited by data caps and slower speeds, were a quick fix for bridging the digital divide at the start of the pandemic, but they’re not a long-term solution, Young said.

“Hotspots are not connectivity, they are backup connectivity. If we want to install people, they have to have broadband, ”she said. “Without it, there will always be a gap around the technology.”

Late last year, the city of Oakland created OakWiFi to provide free Wi-Fi for people who don’t have internet access in their homes. It was first deployed in downtown and west Oakland, and earlier this year it expanded from East Oakland to the San Leandro border along International Boulevard. The service is based on fiber optic cables that run alongside AC Transit’s rapid transit line.

OakWiFi coverage can extend up to 1,200 feet from its base, which means it doesn’t reach many Oakland neighborhoods. The next phases of OakWiFi will consider creating mesh networks – wireless nodes that communicate with each other – in city and school facilities to extend the Wi-Fi signal, said Loren Taylor, District 6 Council member. .

“We want to go beyond single access points for individuals and just be able to have high-speed city-wide connectivity,” Taylor said. “So wherever you are in Oakland City, you can be connected, completely leveling the playing field.”

As families prepare to start school next month, Young, the executive director of The Oakland Reach, wants to make sure families who pursue distance learning are supported. At the end of June, the organization surveyed its families and found that 34% were undecided as to whether they would return to in-person learning in the fall. Oakland Unified, like other school districts in California, will offer an independent distance study option for the next school year.

“Not all children go back to traditional school,” she said. “For parents and students who have decided to stay online, we should prioritize them as this will be the primary way they get their education. “

Using technology in the classroom

For David Byrd, a music teacher at Oakland High School, teaching online during the pandemic has meant focusing more on private lessons rather than having the whole class playing at the same time. Differences in internet speeds quickly cut off classroom gaming sessions due to lags and zooming issues.

“I haven’t heard my whole orchestra play together since before the lockdown,” said Byrd, who has been at Oakland High since 2013. “It was virtually impossible to do ensembles for a year and a half. We had to change the way we teach in a more individual type of model. ”

Despite the challenges, Byrd has relied more on the internet to teach music theory and plans to continue to do so in the future. He and his students also tried recording music at home and sharing it on DropBox. Last summer, through a partnership with Arts for Oakland Kids, each of the students in Byrd’s jazz band received recording equipment, including an audio interface, microphone, headphones, and a download of PreSonous audio software at to keep. Byrd’s jazz students will continue to use the equipment to record themselves by playing music to share with him.

Tina Hernandez, director of studies for Lighthouse Community Public Schools, which operates two schools in East Oakland, said Oakland Undivided has given parents the opportunity to be more involved in their children’s education as they can now get involved in their children’s education. connect themselves to e-learning platforms. and see their students’ tasks. The pandemic has also forced schools to reassess how they screen for learning disabilities. Over the past year, Lighthouse has worked with the NAACP to use software to perform virtual dyslexia screens, instead of having students sit side-by-side with an adult, as they traditionally did, said Hernandez.

“I don’t know if we would have discovered this before, or even been excited about it before, because we want to sit down with each child and find out what they know. So we found ways to do it online, ”she added.

At Bay Area Technology School, where before the pandemic, students were already using digital learning software like iReady in the classroom to supplement their teachers’ instruction, Oakland Undiveded provided laptops for students to take home, their allowing them to follow their studies online. The flexibility offered by distance education has also resulted in greater student participation. The East Oakland school had an average daily attendance rate of 95% this year, which Superintendent Seth Feldman owed to the distance education program.

For example, if a student missed the bus to get to school before the schools closed, they could miss an entire day of school, whereas with distance education, if a student had a setback in the morning he could always connect wherever he was, Feldman added.

While principals wish to continue to offer a hybrid mode of education, the charter school may not be able to do so because BayTech’s charter does not include blended education. In order to change the charter, the school would have to go to the OUSD Education Council and get it approved, which would not be possible before the start of the school year. The decision would also likely be affected by the board’s policy around charter schools.

“This should be the new model of education,” Feldman said. “While we’ve learned a lot and groups of kids have done better, we may have to let go of some of that.”

Young, the executive director of The Oakland Reach, echoed Feldman’s feelings about not going back to the same style of education schools had before COVID. Particularly in light of the increase in cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19, Young stressed that the pandemic is not yet over and that the use of the technology should continue to be extended and supported in schools. .

“There could be a world where school would be closed again somehow,” she said. “(Technology) is an important way to build infrastructure and invest in people, and to strengthen the city’s strength. Now that we’ve learned that this is such a big gap for us, and that we’ve made a lot of progress, now is not the time to slow down, it’s time to ramp up.

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