Teachers fill a variety of critical roles outside of traditional classroom education. Promoting wellness and child nutrition, ensuring that students are safe and cared for at home, and preparing children for emergencies and natural disasters are only a few examples of the many hats teachers wear on a daily basis. COVID-19 added one more charge to an already lengthy list.
Educators have long since used their own resources to prepare lesson plans and purchase supplies, but the transition to online learning stretched their time even further. Many teachers have gone above and beyond during the pandemic to enable students for success through digital skills training.
Over 40% of teachers who participated in a RAND Corporation study reported communication concerns with students, while one in five reported challenges related to technology, including lack of Internet and device access in addition to challenges with using technology. These problems are further exacerbated in schools in rural areas, those that serve higher percentages of students of color, and high-poverty schools where teachers were less likely to report that “all or nearly all” students had home Internet access.
Teachers across the country have risen to the challenge to address gaps in broadband adoption. In Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, the City Library established a Digital Navigator program which will run through July 2021. The program connects experienced community members with library patrons who may be eligible for affordable Internet service programs to help with digital skills and privacy training. The University of Utah highlighted one example of a Digital Navigator who took on the role as a way to support her community. She is finishing her certification to become a Head Start teacher, where she previously worked as a substitute teacher.
Resources, training, and capacity for teachers are necessary in order to ensure that every student in the United States has the tools and resources they need for their education. When classrooms moved online last spring, the Highlander Institute in Rhode Island established a distance learning educator hotline, staffed by local librarians, to support teachers who needed technical support for distance learning. The helpline was so successful that the Governor’s Office worked with the Highlander Institute to start a parent version of the hotline.
With the emergence of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, teachers play a critical role as trusted community partners, who can share information about the program and even help families enroll. Even though many teachers find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, they give a lot of their own resources to help their students. Educators will need ongoing resources and support to ensure that they can share information and help connect students long after the pandemic.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief provisions of the American Rescue Plan will provide some relief for already resource-constrained school districts. Though the pandemic pushed people online at a faster rate, schools had already begun posting online homework assignments and using school websites to communicate with parents and students.
Digital skills have become increasingly important for preparing students for jobs and higher education. The State of Arkansas recognized this need, becoming the first state to require all high schools to offer computer science classes in 2014. In the six years since the implementation, computer science course enrollment has increased by 800% and the initiative has become a model for other states. In the next year, Arkansas plans on increasing the initiative’s budget from $2.5 million to $3.5 million, to increase training for teachers.
As more aspects of life transition online than ever before, it is imperative that digital literacy training be considered in broadband expansion plans. Teachers also need the training, time, and resources to be prepared and to set every student up for success in remote learning platforms. Unquestionably, the pandemic has highlighted the essential role that educators play in connecting students with the requisite broadband and adoption tools they need to succeed online.