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The Digital Equity Initiative: Bridging Washington’s Educational Divide With Expanded Access

“The challenges are so severe that some of those districts have actually started using WiFi hotspots and going out on buses. And then the kids must ride their bikes to the buses to be able to get online.”

Joyce Walters, Executive Director at InvestED

The novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the digital divide impeding online educational access and support for many students from low-income families as schools moved the majority of their operations online in efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

A 2020 study on distance learning from Boston Consulting Group found that in Washington, 22 percent of students lack adequate access to high-speed internet connection, and 15 percent lack devices necessary for remote learning. The novel coronavirus pandemic is hindering the ability of students from low-income families to access online education.

In response to the issue, a group of state agencies, philanthropic organizations, representatives of Indigenous communities, Microsoft, Puget Sound Energy, and the Seattle Seahawks recently announced the new Digital Equity Initiative as part of the “All In Washington” relief effort to meet the urgent needs of children and families struggling with digital access in the continued pandemic period.

We spoke with experts working on the issue to get a snapshot of students’ access to online learning in Washington through the coronavirus pandemic and how the state plans to close the digital divide.

Meet the Experts

Joyce Walters, Executive Director at InvestED

Joyce Walters is the Executive Director of InvestED—a nearly 60-year-old non-profit organization in Washington state. The non-profit helps students in accessing resources ranging from academic support to basic needs.

Walters served as Director for Education and Workforce Initiatives at Boeing for over 20 years and also held positions as Executive Director at Teen Feed, Community Schools in Renton, and Corporate Education Strategies. Walters holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Antioch University Seattle and further education from Gonzaga University.

David Keyes, Digital Equity Manager at City of Seattle

David Keyes was the first Community Technology Planner in the country and directed the City of Seattle’s Community Technology Program for 20 years. He currently manages the City’s Digital Equity Initiative.

Keyes has served on federal, state, and local broadband, information policy, and community development efforts. These have included the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) Digital Inclusion Framework, the Washington State broadband strategy, and the Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative. Keyes is a graduate of Antioch College and the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

What is the Digital Equity Initiative?

Washington recognizes that school districts across the state are managing a variety of challenges related to the pivot to online education and remote learning necessitated by Covid-19. Highlighted in this period is the fact that the lack of digital access continues to disproportionately impact families with low incomes, especially Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color across Washington.

With this in mind, the Digital Equity Initiative aims to overcome the digital divide and support academic achievement by quickly providing students with access to devices and hardware, hot spots, and tech support so they can access online learning opportunities.

At its heart, the Digital Equity Initiative is a partnership with the private sector, state government (including Native communities), and philanthropy. All In Washington is also partnering with internet and tech providers, many of whom are providing discounted or free services and devices. Partners include (but are not limited to) Amazon, Microsoft, the Seattle Seahawks, Nordstrom, Zillow, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

In its initial phase, All In Washington’s lead partner was InvestED, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping students in need, which has the infrastructure and networks needed to quickly distribute resources to students and families most in need.

Funds distributed through the Digital Equity Initiative are aimed at complementing the work of public agencies and expanding the local capacity to address the many needs created by the pandemic. InvestED serves as a statewide intermediary, providing critical funding to school districts and local school-based foundations.

Covid-19’s Impact on Statewide Digital Inequity

As Covid-19 hit, low income, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities were severely impacted. There was a loss of jobs, the quick shift to telework, the need to connect kids to school online, and the isolation of elders. Those with low-quality internet services, inadequate devices, and fewer digital skills have suffered the greatest through this abrupt transition. For learners from low-income families, the pandemic period exacerbates educational opportunities, as access to online education is in crisis.

Quantitative and qualitative information reveals the extent of the issue.

“We actually have one in five students right now in Washington state have no high-speed internet, and 15 percent don’t have devices,” InvestED Executive Director Joyce Walters explained.

“So that translates to about 100 and 70,000 kids that have not been able to get online since schools closed in March. To say that this is a crisis and that the need is urgent is an understatement. This is something that families are dealing with on a daily basis. I’s something that we were brought in to help with, and we’re happy to do that.”

David Keyes, Digital Equity Program Manager for the City of Seattle, echoed those concerns: “The need for devices and for affordable, sufficient internet at home has grown significantly with families sheltering primarily at home. For our digital equity program targets, this has accelerated work on meeting immediate student needs while also working towards recovery goals such as skilling up unemployed workers. Seattle [Public] Schools accelerated deployment of their student device program.”

To further support citizens in need, the City of Seattle passed an Internet for All resolution in summer 2020, affirming and addressing the concerns of student families, unemployed workers, and others impacted.

Across the state, the initiative is aimed at ensuring everyone is included in the dialogue, such as low-income families, tribal communities, and rural communities. However, as groups work to mitigate digital inequity, there are various challenges to closing the divide and getting students online.

Practical Challenges to Closing the Digital Divide

Washington State is a state of contrasts. It hosts bustling hubs for tech giants and is also well-known for its awe-inspiring outdoor beauty. But these facets are a double-edged blade in ensuring digital equity and access to online education given increasing economic disparity and physical challenges in implementing widespread modern internet access.

In urban areas, homeless residents and those with limited internet who relied on public facilities for access lost that resource when libraries and community centers closed, Keyes explains.

Wifi hotspots have become a popular solution used to address these issues across the state.

“We’ve worked with Seattle [Public] Schools, the library, and other partners who are distributing hotspots to use,” Keyes said. “The Seattle [Public] Schools launched a sponsored internet program for families and the City has assisted them to develop the agreements, market the program, and sign students up. The Seattle Public Library is adding wi-fi to the exterior of buildings to improve community access.”

But in some areas of the state, it’s not as simple as providing each family with a hotspot to enable access to online education.

“We’re also dealing with districts where they have kids that are living in rural areas that don’t even have cell phone coverage,” Walters said. “So the only option there is for the district to use satellite service that can cost up to $100 per month. And based on the fact that we have the Cascade Mountains to run literally right through the middle of our state, that can create some geography challenges for a lot of these districts where they have very dense tree coverage…And we know that it’s probably about another 10 years we’re being told before broadband will be laid to some of these districts.”

Walters noted that the challenges are so severe that some of those districts have actually started using WiFi hotspots and going out on buses. And then the kids must ride their bikes to the buses to be able to get online.

For more urban centers, there remain issues that some schools may still be dealing with three or four different cell coverage carriers for just one building.

It is also important to note that some families have one or more parents in the house and up to five kids per home all trying to get online at once. So even while some internet companies or mobile companies have come forward and said they will give free internet (or $10 a month internet access) to these families, once they all get online, it grinds everything to a halt, Walters explains. There are also families that have only one device in the house and this limits who can be online at one time.

“Oftentimes the schools are expecting the kids to be online at the same time in the same house. But with 15 percent of kids [across Washington] not having a device in their hands dedicated to them, that makes it very difficult,” Walters said. “It’s a very complex battle that’s being fought on the ground.”

Next Steps: The Future of Digital Access for Washington’s Students

With the challenges of the geographic and socioeconomic landscape in mind, two questions lay at the center of state policy conversations.

  • What is basic education?
  • And does that include digital equity?

“We know that our communities of color or Indigenous communities, especially our families in low incomes around the state were the ones that were hit the hardest by this,” Walters said. “And this issue is not new. It is something that we have known has been going on for a long time…I think it is starting to become part of the conversation about the state’s constitutional responsibility to provide basic education to students. And does that include access online?”

Currently, the initiative is working to provide money to schools and districts to meet the need for a balance of connectivity and tech devices. Some companies, like Microsoft, T-Mobile, and Amazon, with the ability to purchase the items have stepped forward and are working directly with the state and with districts to make sure that devices get into the hands of students as quickly as possible.

The Digital Equity Initiative is aiming to raise $10 million to support these needs and has raised about $2 million so far, according to Walters. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has also pledged to match individual donations up to $1 million per unique donor.

Walters explained that in the coming months, the initiative is doing major fundraising, getting the dollars out to the district, and making sure that they are connecting districts with resources that they need to be able to support students and families. They are also working to increase awareness that if people donate to the Digital Equity Initiative, they can know that those donations will be matched and money will go out to the schools.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s gonna take all of us to be able to solve this issue,” Walters said. “While we’re talking about it, there are still 170,000 kids that need to get online. And that’s the best estimate that we have. We obviously don’t know the exact number, but there are 1.1 million students in Washington State. We have to make sure that all have the opportunity to realize their full potential and be able to participate in their education.”

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.