Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell on Monday called upon Boston school officials to make public a host of data that would expose the depth of the digital divide that exists among students in their homes and what steps the school system is taking to ensure all students have the opportunity to learn during the COVID-19 school closure.
“The lack of consistent data and metrics makes it difficult to assess the number of students with access to remote learning, the number of students engaging with remote learning tools, the quality of instruction, and the impacts of this remote learning period,” according to a copy of a resolution that Campbell plans to introduce at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
Campbell is making her request four weeks after Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius closed schools across Boston to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and shifted all learning online. Yet school officials and the Boston Teachers Union have yet to reach a formal agreement on how teachers and other educators should execute lessons and academic support for students, although many teachers and school leaders have been rolling out remote learning plans.
“We have to be intentional with parents and students to give them as much as we can so they don’t fall behind,” Campbell said in an interview Monday. The councilor’s district includes Dorchester and Mattapan, which have among the highest educational disparities in the city.
Addressing the technological divide among students has been at the center of the school system’s remote learning efforts, according to school officials. So far, the system has distributed more than 28,000 Chromebooks to students, representing slightly more than half of its student population. It also has issued 600 Wi-Fi hotspots to families and is aiming to dole out another 1,200 this week.
To date, about 82 percent of students have logged in to Clever, an online learning tool, or Google Classroom, and the school system is working with teachers and schools to identify and contact students who have not — even going to the homes of students to see if they are OK and if they need help. And earlier this month, officials launched a family survey in 10 languages about technological issues and other challenges that has garnered 15,000 responses.
“We are constantly assessing and shifting how we meet our students’ needs during this unprecedented closure based on feedback we receive from families," said Jessica Ridlen, a school spokeswoman, in a statement.
Yet despite those efforts, families and students continue to struggle. Erika Sanchez, whose 15-year-old son is a ninth-grader at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, said her son’s experience so far with remote learning has been a mixed bag. The East Boston mother, speaking through an interpreter, said his workload has remained about the same and his school gave him a Chromebook, which she picked up for him, but she doesn’t have Internet, forcing him to rely instead on his iPhone 7 for his online classes, homework assignments, and research.
His science class has been the most problematic because much of the material can’t be accessed from his iPhone and there is no replacing a real classroom experience, said Sanchez who is a member of Massachusetts Parents United, a statewide advocacy organization. For instance, instead of getting in-person demonstrations in his mechanics class — and the opportunity to practice repairing cars — he now can only read about it and watch videos.
“She’s worried her son will forget how to do the mechanical stuff, and she’s also worried about the exercise and movement her son is lacking,” said the interpreter, noting he no longer has gym or ROTC.
Sanchez said she tried getting the discounted Wi-Fi the city advertises, but the device was dropped off at her door and she has been unable to figure out how to hook it up.
Campbell said she also will be soliciting families and students about their experiences. She said the goal of the resolution is to help inform the conversation about the digital divide in hopes of minimizing the gaps in achievement that will likely grow during the prolonged school closures. As of now, schools are slated to re-open in early May, but that could be delayed depending upon the course of the pandemic.