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A novel proposal to help millions of kids struggling with online school

A student listens to a lecture on a laptop at home during a remote learning class in Princeton, Ill., on Sept. 11, 2020. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Millions of students across the country are once again going to school from home, as they did last spring when the novel coronavirus arrived in the United States.

Experiences with online learning this year have sparked concerns that many students are falling behind academically — not only because virtual school can’t replicate what happens in a brick-and-mortar school but also because many students are struggling with the technology to access online classes.

Vikki Katz, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, has a novel idea about how to get help to millions of students, which she writes about below. Katz is an expert on digital equity policy, immigrant families and educational inequality.

By Vikki Katz

To state the painfully obvious: We have just kicked off the bare-minimum school year. With the pandemic still uncontrolled and many school buildings lacking adequate ventilation systems to open at scale, even the students who most desperately need in-person instruction will not get nearly enough of it. Like Los Angeles Unified, many districts have prioritized having English learners and students in special education for in-person learning. However, because few districts can provide even these high-need groups of students with five days in the classroom, their parents will once again be obliged to manage remote learning.

Remote learning responsibilities have been a burden for parents of all backgrounds. For immigrant parents, who are less likely to have a high school diploma, have adequate Internet access and devices or feel less confident using these technologies than U.S.-born parents, the burden has been heavier still. For parents whose children are in overlapping categories, as both special education and English learners, the challenges are unmanageable.

The postscript on the sudden pivot to remote learning this past spring is a warning for the fall. Nationally, 1 in 3 K-12 students lacked sufficient Internet access, devices or both to complete remote learning successfully — and those numbers were even worse for children of immigrants. We cannot afford the same shortfalls this year when our most vulnerable students have already lost half a year of learning.

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How do we slow months of learning loss before they become irrecoverable lost years? Already-overworked teachers cannot assume tech support responsibilities. Nor will immigrant parents; many are working multiple jobs and shifts that conflict with school hours. In many families, it will fall to older children to manage their siblings’ remote learning alongside their own, since they understand the technology, language and expectations of schools better than their parents do. These conditions will cascade educational inequities without an immediate intervention.

My proposal: We must roll out a Digital Learning Ambassadors corps immediately, staffed by young adults in predominantly immigrant communities. Millions of young people, like my students at Rutgers University, are either completing remote coursework at home or graduated this past spring. They are looking for meaningful, paid work.

As tech-savvy, native speakers of languages spoken by the K-12 students who struggled most in remote learning this spring, they are our best untapped resource for supporting better learning experiences this fall.

With the pandemic disrupting normal patterns of operation for the foreseeable future, schools need to provide families with ongoing support. That means both technology maintenance and guidance on navigating online learning platforms, since most low-income immigrant parents seldom use computers for either work or personal reasons. Their limited familiarity with digital devices, with English, and with U.S. schooling compound one another in a remote environment.

A Digital Learning Ambassador who speaks the family’s language and can guide their connections to remote content and to teachers will address the needs of parents and students. Equally important, ambassadors will provide educators with urgently needed support as they manage incredible teaching challenges.

A Digital Learning Ambassador corps need not be expensive and has precedent in national policy. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its National Broadband Plan in 2010, it proposed a Digital Literacy Corps with the same principles outlined here but with a broader mandate of serving all local residents. The intervening decade provides many models that could be rapidly adapted to train Digital Learning Ambassadors.

Cities and regions can get started right away by using expanded allocations of Title I, youth employment and National Service Corps funds to hire and train Digital Learning Ambassadors in the 30 largest (and largely most diverse) school districts.

Drawing from proven and scaled service programs like Success Mentor Corps and City Year, Digital Learning Ambassadors will each “adopt” the number of families a district deems manageable and contact them twice each week. Ambassadors, trained to troubleshoot most family technology issues remotely, will elevate any issues requiring more serious attention to their supervisors. They can also flag content issues for teachers’ follow-up that parents may not be comfortable raising directly with teachers.

Digital Learning Ambassadors need not be limited to English learners or students with special needs; every class of remote learners could benefit from such assistance. But if we must triage, then our districts should place the ambassadors where they can be of service to our most vulnerable students and families. There is no time to waste, and there are no acceptable excuses for falling short.

In the longer term, with the benefit of new federal leadership and resolution of the pandemic, the Digital Learning Ambassadors could evolve as one element of a broader national commitment to ensuring that any future school disruptions do not deepen our already troublingly entrenched educational inequality. This program would also signal an important commitment to an innovative post-pandemic education strategy: that an effective, sustainable digital infrastructure for equitable education will be local, and it will center the assets that young people bring to strengthening their own communities.