Laptops for all MNPS students is crucial first step in bridging digital divide | Opinion
The public education landscape in Nashville has always been littered with inequities, but the COVID-19 shutdown has aired much of this dirty laundry, and technology, or lack thereof, has become the subject of significant community attention.
As school-aged children across Nashville moved to a remote-learning system, a “digital divide” was quickly brought to light. In a city often celebrated for its economic prosperity, we learned that over half of the students in our public education system do not have access to both a device and to high-speed internet. By taking steps to close this divide, we will position our community to benefit far beyond the days of COVID-19.
COVID-19 will badly damage some student’s learning
As we consider how technology might expand opportunity for all children, let’s first consider how a lack of technology has already harmed many of them. The Brookings Institute tells us that when students are out of school for the standard two-month summer vacation, they lose 25%-30% worth of school-year learning, and the numbers are even worse for students of color.
If Nashville students return to classrooms in August, they will have been out of the classroom for a period of five months. If the Brookings’ numbers are to be believed, it is entirely possible that tens of thousands of Metro Nashville Public School students will have lost up to 75% of school-year learning by the time this summer ends.
But for some Nashville students, learning never stopped. Some schools and educators provided high-quality online resources to their students — of which there are countless — and some even provided real-time lessons through videoconferencing platforms. But it must be noted that without access to the internet and a device, a student would not have even had the option to take part in such offerings. Come fall 2020, these students may find themselves standing at the starting line — while their classmates are already halfway down the track.
John Cooper took a crucial first step
It doesn’t have to be this way. On June 8, Mayor John Cooper announced that every public school student in Nashville-Davidson County will be provided a laptop and, if needed, internet connectivity. This is an excellent first step in what is sure to be a long, grueling journey to create a more equitable public education system. But with a technology plan in place, one that will serve ALL Metro Nashville Public Schools students, we have reason to hope. With virtual learning opportunities in place, our school system has an additional tool in its toolbox, a way to inch toward closing the many student learning gaps we know exist.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, our community faced a terrible battle with college and career readiness: 70% of graduating MNPS students did not meet this mark. Literacy had long presented its own challenge: three out of four MNPS students do not read on grade level. The data has long tried to tell us that students required additional supports.
Imagine an inclusive future
Today, let’s imagine what Nashville’s student technology plan might make possible for MNPS families. How quickly and conveniently might students be able to take part in tutoring, self-paced academic courses or summer learning? For English language learners or students with disabilities, specialized supports could be offered around the clock. With fully equitable access to technology, we could push the doors of opportunity open for more than 80,000 students.
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As we approach the 2020-21 school year, we would be remiss as a community if we did not prepare for a schooling scenario that involves a combination of in-school and home-based learning. With the appropriate technology in the hands of every MNPS child, virtual learning solutions can be pursued with vigor, educators secure in the knowledge that all students have the ability to participate.
There will be challenges, certainly — we’re all familiar with the pains of technical glitches and internet outages. But by investing in a comprehensive technology plan for all public school students, our city has taken an enormous step in the right direction. Pandemic planning aside, equitable access to technology for Metro Nashville Public School students could lead us to a world in which students are not bound only to those supports that exist inside their school building. A one-to-one technology plan just makes sense.
A conversation about opportunity
At its core, this is a conversation about opportunity. With a technology-for-all plan, we move closer to creating a community in which every single student has access to a high-quality public education, regardless of where a student lives in our city. We can offer students a true 21st-century education, providing them a strong sense of digital literacy while supplementing traditional literacy work. We can better prepare every student for college and career by introducing technology-based pathways counseling, virtual job shadowing, career aptitude tests and so much more — to all students.
The first step to equitable public education in 2020? Connected devices for all. Thank you, Mayor Cooper, for leading our community in this direction.
Tara Scarlett is president and CEO of the Scarlett Family Foundation.
Read more at The Tennessean.