Universal notebook program helps state bridge digital divide

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At the start of this school year, parents, teachers and students were delighted with the long-awaited return of face-to-face teaching. But just when the pandemic appeared to be over, the Delta variant caused districts to rethink their plans to bring students and staff back to school. In some states, the rate of new seven-day coronavirus cases is twice as high as it was around the same time last year.

As a result, many states have reintroduced virtual and blended learning options as new cases of COVID-19 continue to skyrocket. And one, Mississippi, has made significant strides in bridging the digital divide with a pandemic response plan that took into account the unique needs and challenges of each school district.

The persistence of the digital divide

The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities of access and opportunity across the country, but this is especially true in rural areas in the south. While there has since been progress in bridging the digital divide with funding from the CARES Act, many of these efforts are short-term, temporary fixes that will expire over the next two years. According to recent estimates, more than 12 million students remain under-connected due to limited technology infrastructure, supply chain bottlenecks, lack of support for technology adoption and disruption. ‘inadequate funding. For families of different income levels, the level of access remains unchanged from what it was in 2019, further disadvantaging students from low-income families.

Remember that the digital divide is not an all or nothing phenomenon. Digital access experiences exist along a continuum. A student who owns a laptop has a faulty device if they have to share it with one or more siblings. Internet access may be available to a student, but it is inadequate for distance learning if it cannot stream video without interruption. Real progress towards bridging the digital divide will require a coordinated effort between the public, private and social sectors, an effort that Mississippi undertook when the pandemic began.

A statewide approach

When school closures began in the spring of 2020, Carey Wright, Mississippi State Superintendent of Education, seized the opportunity to address the digital divide in the state. Wright and his team at the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) immediately began working on a strategic approach to reduce the digital learning gap 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 the districts.

Released in April 2020, the guide was designed to facilitate local discussions on the next steps in supporting distance and hybrid learning models aligned with MDE materials. The guide included a budgeting tool to help districts determine their technology needs based on the number of students and teachers and the inventory of devices, software and connectivity.

A statewide district survey was then launched to determine the specifics of device ownership and internet connectivity at the local level. “We had to get a feel for the age of the devices and the number of each district,” Wright explained. “We were very worried. Some districts did not have enough devices for all children, some did not have enough for teachers, and not all districts had LMS [Learning Management Systems]. And so, with the stabilization dollars coming in, we asked ourselves, “What if we work with the legislature to come up with a plan to purchase these devices?” “

In the weeks that followed, Wright and his team at MDE developed a comprehensive state-wide digital learning plan and cost model for bridging the digital divide based on data from the MDE’s survey. district. Introduced to the legislature in May 2020, the plan aimed to make education more equitable by closing gaps in device ownership and broadband coverage statewide. “We really felt it was a fairness issue,” Wright said. To this end, every district in the state has been encouraged to update their laptops.

After the MDE’s plan was approved, Mississippi policymakers moved quickly to pass two new laws on July 9, 2020, which allocated a total of $ 200 million to fund the Mississippi Connects program. The first law, the Distance Learning Equity Act (Senate Bill 3044) provided districts with $ 150 million to fund computing devices, software, teacher professional development and improvement. Internet connectivity. A key element of Senate Bill 3044 was an exemption from regular tendering procedures that would allow MDE to minimize costs and expedite shipping through bulk purchasing. To receive the devices, districts had to match 20% of funds received and submit a digital learning plan to 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 areas unserved from the state.

Funds were allocated to districts based on Federal Communications Commission data on homes without broadband access and the student population in districts receiving free or reduced lunch. Each district paid for their devices and submitted the documentation to MDE for reimbursement. Funds allocated through House and Senate bills were to be spent by December 15, 2020, including reimbursement from MDE to districts for costs incurred in financing the devices.

Once the new legislation was passed, MDE leadership met with school district superintendents and directors of technology to finalize the technology needs of each district and establish a transparent process for selecting vendors with the capacity to manage a complex project. this size and meet the tight deadlines outlined in the legislation. . What happened next was an unprecedented statewide procurement effort that would effectively put a computer in the hand of every K-12 student in the fall of 2020. A project that would normally have taken up to two years to plan and implement was completed within weeks, all at a time when the United States was facing a shortage of laptops due to the strong global demand.

To reduce the burden on the districts, the program rented a large warehouse in Jackson where shipments from around the world were received. All devices have been unboxed, hard-shelled, loaded with security and software, and fully configured to each school’s needs. The devices were then loaded onto carts and delivered to schools for immediate use by the students. All the districts had to do was get them out of the wagon and turn them on. The devices also came with three-year insurance and 24-hour breakdown / repair assistance that provides on-demand diagnostic and repair services to schools.

Planning for the future

The Mississippi Connects program was designed to be more than a blueprint for connecting students to technology – it was designed to connect students with their classmates, teachers and communities through a transparent exchange of teaching and learning, whether in the classroom or at home. Providing the raw materials is just the first step in a larger plan to help teachers, administrators, and technical staff deliver a rigorous, engaging, and secure digital learning experience for every student in Mississippi Public Schools. . Other elements of the program include the development of a high-quality digital curriculum, professional development of teachers, and access to telehealth and teletherapy to support the physical and socio-emotional well-being of students.

MDE continues to work with its partners to implement the next phases of the program. Currently, an instructional technology coaching program is underway to provide teachers with personalized, one-on-one support from a mentor who works collaboratively with the teacher to set instructional goals, co-design lesson plans, and identify tools. and appropriate digital resources to support instruction. To promote data-driven decision making, BrightBytes conducts data analytics with districts to help them analyze data and set short- and long-term goals to improve student outcomes. Data will be collected through fall 2021 and further data collection is scheduled for spring 2022. Plans are also underway to extend broadband to rural Mississippi communities, digitizing a landscape that has long been known as a digital desert.

MDE understands that the real work has only just begun. The most difficult job will be creating the conditions and supports that bring value to a device. “This is just the start,” Wright said. “We have a long way to go as we continue to collaborate with partners, provide teacher training and bring internet connectivity to rural and urban areas. Ensuring the success of a program of this magnitude takes time, but with the right leadership, public and private partners, and the support of schools, it can be done.


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