Commentary: Another look at Delaware’s digital learning landscape

By Neil Kirschling

Earlier this year, Rodel wrote about how Delaware has approached digital learning during COVID-19. Since then, the state has invested in areas such as access to devices and broadband connectivity and published a feasibility study to further examine the gaps.

Neil Kirschling

Digital learning is more relevant than ever, as parents, students and teachers must navigate the complexities of fully remote or hybrid learning environments. While support and training provide challenges in their own right, the first step to ensuring an equitable education for all students is safeguarding broadband and digital access — regardless of income or ZIP code.

Where are we now as a state? Since March, Delaware has taken steps to eliminate internet deserts and close the digital divide by making investments in this key area.

At the end of August, Gov. John Carney, along with Chief Information Officer James Collins and Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting, announced that $20 million in CARES Act funding will be used for broadband infrastructure. The funding will:

• Connect more Delaware families to high-speed internet, support remote learning and establish a statewide speed survey.

• Build out additional infrastructure across the state and acquire equipment and services for families in financial need.

• Complete 15 towers as part of the Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative in Kent and Sussex counties for remote learning during COVID-19.

• Serve more than 1,500 customers in rural areas.

Delaware is working to make high-speed internet a reality for all Delawareans, and CIO Collins stated that high-speed broadband is “as essential as any public utility, and the COVID-19 pandemic made that need even more evident.” A Clayton resident even described this work as “heaven-sent,” stating that prior to having wireless broadband capabilities, she had to drive all her children to the school parking lot just to have Wi-Fi access for completing homework.

Delaware school districts have taken varying approaches to resuming learning for their students. Most districts are remote, and some are open with a hybrid model. Of the districts that are currently remote, many have plans to transition into a hybrid model in late October or early November.

Fully remote districts are Milford and Sussex Tech (fully remote for the first marking period), while Appoquinimink, Brandywine, Capital, Caesar Rodney, Christina, Delmar, Laurel, New Castle County Vo Tech and Red Clay began remote and will adapt to a hybrid model.

Among districts with hybrid options, Cape Henlopen, Indian River, Polytech, Seaford, Smyrna and Woodbridge offer a variety of choices.

Seaford has three groups: one learning entirely from home and the other two attending in-person classes two days a week. Every Wednesday, all students learn from home, so custodians can fully disinfect classrooms. Around 50% of families chose to keep their children home.

Cape Henlopen K-5 students have the option to be in their classrooms five days a week, and students in grades 6-12 have the option to be in their classrooms two days a week.

Woodbridge is using an A/B model, with 50% of students in school each week

Local nonprofit Tech Impact released a feasibility study to assess the current state of technology and the gaps that exist in four core requisites (Devices, Broadband Access, Support and Training, and Content). The study — which was sponsored by the Vision Grant Program as part of the Delaware COVID-19 Strategic Response Fund, a partnership of Philanthropy Delaware and the Delaware Community Foundation — worked to provide insight into how to best address digital inclusion in Delaware and stop the spread of the digital divide.

Key findings from the study:

• There needs to be a focus on providing one-to-one devices for students.

• More than 99% of Caesar Rodney School District students have received school-loaned devices for remote learning.

• Interviews showed a trend that multiple districts lost touch with about 10% of families, which made distribution of devices to these families impossible.

• Since reopening in the fall, several districts across the state are reporting attendance above 90%. Smyrna and Caesar Rodney reported 93% attendance, with Appoquinimink reporting 98% attendance.

• Internet currently exists as a privilege but should be seen as a right like any other utility.

• There is need for education on effective use of tools, best practices for online delivery and balancing synchronous and asynchronous instruction across all districts and schools.

• According to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, students could expect to lose anywhere from one-third to half of their academic gains from last year, with large racial and class disparities in estimated losses.

The feasibility study also explained the benefits to education, both presently and in the future, that relevant and accessible remote learning can provide:

• Opens the door to leverage technology in a non-COVID-19 environment, as well.

• Instead of accepting learning losses, remote learning can be utilized for snow days, out-of-school suspensions, etc.

• Virtual learning can be utilized in an asynchronous method for nontraditional students, such as adult learners or school-aged students who work during the day. For example, Delaware Technical Community College is migrating content online and intends to keep the option in the future to provide flexibility to students.

• Can offer additional programming not traditionally provided, such as mentoring and programs targeting disconnected youth, as well as enrichment and supplemental learning, like the Strive Partnership.

The report recommended that the state partially fund access for both households with income at or below 100%–200% of the federal poverty level, regardless of the presence of school-aged children in the household, and mobile hot spots for households with school-aged children in the same income range that do not have the ability to get internet access at their residence.

The two-year budget for this initiative is estimated at $21 million-$26 million ($5 million for devices, $10 million-$15 million for internet coverage (broadband and mobile hot spots) and $6 million for distribution and support.

Tech Impact presented digital access as a four-part process. Providing devices alone may be useful, but broadband access allows users to take advantage of the multitude of information and platforms available online. Additionally, support and training, as well as relevant content, are imperative to ensure students, teachers and families can make the most of their digital access.

Delaware teachers, students and families need support now more than ever. The Tech Impact report builds upon previous recommendations from the Rodel Teacher Council Memo, which called for consistent broadband and capacity for all learners, devices that give students and teachers the freedom to learn and teach, and curated units and curricular materials to be made available online statewide.

Neil Kirschling is director of policy and advocacy for Rodel. For more information go to Rodel.org.