Closing the digital divide – school officials, community reflect on how COVID-19 is shaping education
MARYLAND – For rural communities, with virtual learning comes an inevitable digital divide. This was a hot topic Monday, as U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen hosted a virtual discussion with education officials and community members. “It is our goal to make sure that every single household, business, and person across the country is connected to high speed internet in the coming years. I think that’s absolutely essential for the success of our country,” said Sen. Van Hollen.
Superintendent of Talbot County Public Schools Dr. Kelly Griffith says the past year has been a whirlwind of adjusting and readjusting. “I think in the beginning we thought it would just be for the rest of the school year or for that month. Then we started realizing this might be a long term planning process,” said Dr. Griffith.
Dr. Griffith tells 47ABC the district reached out to internet providers to see if they could provide discounted packages for struggling families. The school district also launched their Digital Divide campaign to help raise more than $90,000 for the same purpose. “Once you have those established relationships you can move forward rather quickly. Our community was responsive,” said Dr. Griffith.
While funding from the American Rescue Plan Act is helping now, Dr. Griffith says the district had to make quick adjustments to help teachers and students adapt. She says staff were trained on how to use different virtual learning platforms. Talbot County Public Schools also reached out to students and their families to find out the best learning strategies for each student. “We knew that it would be really important, not only for our kids to engage, but for us to really pay attention to where they were in their well being,” said Dr. Griffith.
Dr. Kelly Griffith says with all of this work done, “pivot” has been the key word of the COVID-19 pandemic. She says effectively communicating new strategies with school staff and the community as a whole was key to getting through the school year. “We just have to figure out what we need to do to change education to meet the needs of our children for the future. You see it in the business world. A lot of people are giving up commercial real estate and figuring out how to do business differently. We’re going to figure out how to make sure we’re meeting the educational needs of our students differently,” said Dr. Griffith.
Back at home, parents and students also had to adjust quickly. “There are certain demands, of course, for your own job. Then, simultaneously you’re trying to assist your child who is engaged in virtual learning,” said Somerset County Parent Advisory Council member Carrie Samis.
Samis says long hours in front of computer screens have been tough on everyone. “My daughter is online from 7:55 in the morning until 2:15. That’s a long day staring at a screen,” said Samis. “Teachers are sometimes using the apps that they use to communicate late in to the evening, on weekends because they are answering students’ questions.”
Of course, all of that adjustment relies on internet connectivity, which doesn’t come cheap and isn’t easy to come by in a rural community. “I’m in a relatively populated area where the connectivity is not as much of an issue. But even for us, it’s still a concern,” said Samis. “It isn’t just a matter of infrastructure. It’s also the cost associated and who is paying for those additional costs.”
Difficulties aside, Samis says rather than focusing on learning loss, it’s the progress that’s been made by communities and school districts that’s important to remember. “Who is it that we’re behind exactly? The entire world is dealing with a global pandemic right now. I think we really need to focus on what new skills are being gained,” said Samis.
Dr. Griffith echoed that sentiment, telling 47ABC the virtual learning environment has actually been beneficial to some students. “We’ve had a lot of students really thrive in this environment, too. A lot of people like to talk about learning loss, we know there’s going to be some learning loss. But we also know there’s going to be some special skills developed in this kind of environment,” said Dr. Griffith.
Moving forward, Samis says she thinks more asynchronous learning days could be a big help to students and teachers. She says her daughter, other students, and teachers have all expressed how key they were to be able to keep up with learning amid the pandemic. “They have a little bit of time to catch up and do things a little more at their own pace at least for one day,” said Samis.
Meanwhile, Dr. Griffith says Talbot County Public Schools is considering keeping virtual learning open to students throughout the next school year. She says the district was already using virtual learning as a tool before the COVID-19 pandemic. “In the past we’ve done some things virtually with cross campus. We have some courses that we offer at Easton High that we don’t offer at St. Michaels. But the students in the past at St. Michaels have zoomed into the class at Easton High,” said Dr. Griffith.
With that past experience, Dr. Griffith tells 47ABC she thinks the district is better poised to make the most of offering virtual classes. “Now what we’re realizing is we need to take advantage of those opportunities and do more of that – more innovative thinking to make sure we’re meeting the needs of our students,” said Dr. Griffith.