A poll of California parents conducted from March 26 to April 1 showed that a majority fear major educational setbacks for their children due to school closures. As 39 states confirm that schools will stay closed for the rest of the academic year and some begin to discuss closures extending into summer and fall, educators are grappling with how to sufficiently prepare students for next school year.

“We are bracing ourselves for an unprecedented, historic academic regression experienced by our most fragile population of students,” Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, told USA Today.

Learning remotely exacerbates the difficulty already faced by students who lack adequate shelter, regular meals, attentive parents, access to technology and familiarity with the language.

Most notably, the grand scale transition to online learning by schools across the country is spotlighting the massive gap in access and equity. Yet, educators, tech companies and advocates are pushing to close that gap as a first step in helping these students complete the school year.

Leaders advocate for equipment and connectivity coast to coast

According to 41% of parents responding to the above poll by Education Trust-West, not having enough devices like computers or tablets at home was considered a major barrier in feeling confident that their children would be able to participate in remote or distance learning.

Educational leaders around the country have been proactive about closing the digital divide.

“This is really a humanitarian crisis,” says Beth Lambert, a state Department of Education coordinator of secondary education and integrated instruction in Maine, where an estimated 20% of the state’s 180,000 pre-K to grade 12 students don’t have functional internet at home. “We will never make progress around equity and closing the achievement gap if we can’t close the digital divide. And so my hope is that this is bringing that to light for people who are decision makers.”

Dr. Caprice Young is superintendent of the Learn4Life charter schools network that teaches 23,000 at-risk students in Ohio, Michigan and California, 85% of whom have no internet access at home. She is petitioning to hold the FCC accountable for free nationwide access to broadband internet.

“FCC requirements to support public access to telecommunications have long been part of U.S. policy,” she says. “In 2020, why isn’t internet free when we need it to educate our children? It’s time for the FCC to step in.”

Others are urging large corporations to close the gap like Fast Company senior writer Mark Wilson, who chides the wealthy companies that “form the digital foundation of learning in our schools” for not stepping up to the plate to provide for the estimated 10 million students in need of computers and internet access.

Addressing Google, Microsoft and Apple, Wilson writes, “As we face this pandemic, the three greatest American technology companies should be paying back their profits, not to stockholders on dividends, but to the consumers who stacked their profits in the first place.”

Two days after the article was published, Google announced a donation of 4,000 Chromebooks to students in California and a partnership with the state to provide 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for rural households.

Districts scramble to connect students, with or without help from tech companies

Whether or not they receive financial assistance, district leaders are getting students connected on online learning.

In the absence of action from the government agencies he considers responsible for connectivity, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner announced a plan on April 20 that includes stepping in with $95 million to make sure education is not interrupted for students needing internet hotspots, computers and tablets.

As of April 22, Chicago Public Schools were still distributing additional home devices they’d ordered for roughly half of the estimated 115,000 students who need them. Meanwhile, the district delivered 12,000 internet hotspots to students living in temporary housing.

In Austin, 500 school buses outfitted with Wi-Fi are parking throughout near apartment complexes and in neighborhoods where student need for internet access is highest. During school hours, students are able to connect through their school computers from as far away as 300 feet from the Wi-Fi-equipped buses. These buses were funded through a $600,000 grant from Kajeet, an education technology provider.

EdTech companies of all sizes are providing free education resources for students and teachers. For example, Verbit offers real-time transcripts that serve as a written record so college students without reliable internet don’t miss online lectures and fall behind as they approach final exams. Tom Levne, CEO and co-founder of the company, also recommends captioned video shown to increase comprehension and boost grades.

Engaging students now that they’re connected

Once students are up on their school’s online learning platform, educators are faced with the daunting task of making sure they’re engaged and learning. Beutner shares that while teachers are able to measure when and for how long students log into the classroom, the work completed, and whether they get involved in discussions about assignments, subtler signs of student engagement are harder to gauge.

“We’re in the early days and still exploring the more subtle things you can observe in a classroom like how students are feeling, if they’re the connecting with their classmates and teachers, and how they’re growing as individuals and students,” he notes.

While committed to teaming with teachers to do everything possible with virtual learning, he reminds listeners that students belong at school with their classmates and teachers and is coming up with plans to help students catch up when buildings reopen.

One such plan includes robust summer school programs to compensate for missed class time and is aimed particularly at students least capable of working independently online, such as young learners and English learners. An initiative already in place to hire more teachers for the district’s highest need schools will be expanded to include all primary schools.