When this school year began, parents, teachers and students rejoiced over the long-awaited return to in-person instruction. But just when the pandemic appeared to be over, the Delta variant has caused districts to rethink their plans for bringing students and staff back to school. In some states, the seven-day rate of new coronavirus cases is twice as high as it was this time last year.
As a result many states have reintroduced virtual and hybrid learning options as new COVID-19 cases continue to soar. And one, Mississippi, has made important strides in closing the digital divide through a pandemic response plan that took each school district’s unique needs and challenges into account.
The Persistence of the Digital Divide
The pandemic exacerbated inequities in access and opportunity across the country, but this is particularly true of rural areas in the south. While there has since been progress in narrowing the digital divide using CARES Act funding, many of these efforts are temporary, short-term solutions that will expire within the next couple of years. According to recent estimates, over 12 million students remain under-connected due to limited technology infrastructure, supply chain bottlenecks, lack of technology adoption support, and inadequate funding. For families in different income tiers the level of access remains unchanged from what it was in 2019, placing students from lower income families at further disadvantage.
It is worth remembering that the digital divide is not an all or nothing phenomenon. Experiences of digital access exist along a continuum. A student who owns a laptop is device deficient if she has to share it with one or more siblings. Internet access might be available to a student but is inadequate for distance learning if they cannot stream video without interruption. Real progress towards closing the digital divide will require a coordinated effort between public, private, and social sectors—an effort that Mississippi undertook when the pandemic began.
A State-wide Approach
When school closures began in spring 2020, Carey Wright, state superintendent of education for Mississippi, seized the opportunity to address the digital divide in the state. Wright and her team at the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) immediately began work on a strategic approach to narrow the digital learning divide between students living in different parts of the state. The first step was an assembly of MDE specialists with expertise in academic content, professional development and technology who collaborated on a digital learning guide that was validated with districts.
Released in April 2020, the guide was designed to facilitate local discussions around next steps for supporting remote and hybrid learning models that were aligned with MDE supports. The guide included a budgeting tool to assist districts in determining their technology needs based on counts of students and teachers and inventory on devices, software, and connectivity.
A state-wide district survey was later launched to determine the specifics of device ownership and internet connectivity at the local levels. “We needed to get a lay of the land about the age of devices and how many each district had,” explained Wright. “We were very concerned. Some districts didn’t have enough devices for all the kids, some didn’t have them for teachers, and not all the districts had LMS’s [Learning Management Systems]. And so, with the stabilization dollars that were coming in we asked ourselves, ‘What if we worked with the legislature to put together a plan to buy these devices?’”
In the following weeks Wright and her team at the MDE developed a comprehensive state-wide digital learning plan and cost model to close the digital divide based on data from the district survey. Presented to the legislature in May 2020, the plan aimed to make education more equitable by closing gaps in device ownership and broadband coverage across the state. “We really did feel that this was an equity issue,” said Wright. To that end, every district in the state was encouraged to refresh their laptops.
After MDE’s plan was approved Mississippi policymakers acted quickly to pass two new laws on July 9, 2020, that allocated a combined $200 million to fund the Mississippi Connects program. The first law, The Equity in Distance Learning Act (Senate Bill 3044) provided districts with $150 million to fund computing devices, software, teacher professional development and improved internet connectivity. A key component of Senate Bill 3044 was an exemption from regular procurement bidding procedures that would enable the MDE to minimize costs and expedite shipping through bulk purchasing. To receive the devices, districts had to match 20 percent of funds received and submit a digital learning plan to the MDE by September 1, 2020.
The second law, the Mississippi Pandemic Response Broadband Availability Act (House Bill 1788), provided $50 million in grants to Mississippi school districts, independent schools, and Native American tribal schools to expand broadband access in unserved areas of the state.
Funds were allocated to districts based on Federal Communications Commission data of homes without broadband access and the districts’ population of students receiving free or reduced lunch. Each district paid for their devices and submitted documentation to MDE for reimbursement. Funds allocated through both the House and Senate Bills needed to be spent by December 15, 2020, including MDE’s reimbursement to districts for the costs incurred in funding devices.
Once the new legislation was passed MDE leadership met with school district superintendents and technology directors to finalize each district’s technology needs and establish a transparent process for selecting vendors with the capacity to manage a complex project of this size and meet the tight deadlines outlined in the legislation. What happened next was an unprecedented state-wide procurement effort that would effectively place a computer in every K-12 student’s hand during fall of 2020. A project that normally would have taken up to two years to plan and implement was completed in a matter of weeks—all at a time when the U.S. was facing laptop shortages because of the high global demand.
To reduce the burden on districts, the program rented a large warehouse in Jackson where shipments from around the world were received. All the devices were unboxed, reinforced with a hard case, loaded with security and software and fully configured according to the needs of individual schools. The devices were then loaded onto carts and delivered to schools for students’ immediate use. All districts had to do was take them out of the cart and turn them on. The devices also came with three-year insurance and 24-hour break/fix support that provides on-demand diagnosis and repair services to schools.
Planning for the Future
The Mississippi Connects program was designed to be more than a plan for connecting students to technology—it was designed to connect students to their classmates, their teachers, and their communities through a seamless exchange of teaching and learning, whether in the classroom or at home. Providing the raw materials is only the first step of a broader plan to help teachers, administrators and technical staff provide a rigorous, engaging and secure digital learning experience to every public-school student in Mississippi. Additional program components include the development of high-quality digital curriculum, teacher professional development, and access to telehealth and teletherapy to support students’ physical and socioemotional wellbeing.
MDE is continuing to work with their partners to implement the next phases of the program. Currently, an instructional technology coaching program is underway to provide teachers with customized, one-on-one support from a mentor who works collaboratively with the teacher to set instructional goals, co-design lesson plans, and identify appropriate digital tools and resources to support instruction. To promote data-driven decision making, BrightBytes is conducting data-walkthroughs with districts to assist them in analyzing data and setting short- and long-term goals for improving student outcomes. Data will be collected through fall 2021 with another data collection planned for spring 2022. Plans are also underway for extending broadband to Mississippi’s rural communities, digitizing a landscape that has long been known as a digital desert.
MDE is aware that the real work has just begun. The most challenging work will be around creating the conditions and supports that bring value to having a device. “This is only the beginning,” said Wright. “We have a long road ahead of us as we continue to collaborate with partners, to provide teacher training, and bring internet connectivity to rural and urban areas. Ensuring the success of a program with this magnitude takes time, but with the right leadership, public and private partners, and support from schools, it can be done.”