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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.