Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, Seattle students and their families are still confronting a disproportionately large divide in who can and cannot access technology and online learning, though the City and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) are launching an array of initiatives that could close the gap. According to the May 2020 Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) Survey, “at least 8,800 students still need adequate, reliable internet.” A July report published by sea.citi — a network of regional tech and innovation companies working to promote civic engagement and build relationships between community, government, and innovation workers — shows stark inequities among students without access. The most glaring inequity in the report is that almost half of all Black residents in Washington have a barrier to accessing reliable internet. Economic barriers are cited as the most prevalent in households without the internet, making Black students in the state five times more likely to not have access.
In September, the City of Seattle released its Internet for All (IFA) Seattle Report, which aims to improve affordability, outreach, and hardware programs to resolve the broadband gap in the city. This effort is essential considering there is no definitive date for Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to resume in-person learning in the near future. According to the SPS October 29 newsletter, “Seattle Public Schools will remain remote with limited in-person instruction through January 28, the first semester of school.” Increases in COVID-19 cases over the past month, along with Washington State Department of Health recommendations, have left SPS with no other choice but to continue with remote learning. This choice will require a continued, concerted effort to bridge a digital equity gap that the pandemic has made all the more urgent.
In 2016, Seattle was recognized as a National Digital Inclusion Trailblazer by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. It was one of 15 cities recognized for the work that is being done to promote “digital literacy and broadband access for underserved residents and serve as models for other local governments to tackle digital equity.” Seattle also ranked in the top five for households with cable, DSL, or broadband in the American Community Survey. The City had already recognized in 2016 that digital equity was paramount to “civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.”
When Governor Jay Inslee issued the emergency order on March 13, 2020 that closed all K–12 schools in Washington, “It quickly revealed this technological gap that existed,” said Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for SPS. Of the estimated 8,800 students that reported lacking adequate, reliable internet, a quarter of them reported not having a device adequate for online learning and another 25% reported not having sufficient internet for real-time video online learning. SPS was faced with a difficult task that has taken the dedication of educators, the City of Seattle’s existing Digital Equity program, and community organizations working together in an attempt to reach the students furthest from educational justice.
According to the IFA report, “Seattle Schools has addressed student internet needs through a combination of providing mobile hotspots and assisting families with fixed cable broadband service, primarily through the Comcast Internet Essentials program.” A reported 425 Comcast service sponsor (promo) codes were provided, 60 families were directed to Wave for sponsored service according to the IFA report. Robinson noted that the latest data also shows 2,753 hotspots have been distributed. The work to create digital equity in the city of Seattle has been seemingly non-stop since in-person teaching ended.
But as stated in the IFA report, “We also need to be careful not to equate broadband internet availability with broadband internet adoption.” The 2018 Seattle IT Connectedness Segmentation Study revealed that only 23% of low-income households that qualify for low-income internet access programs — some as low as $9.95 per month — are actually using them. Many Seattle residents are unaware the programs exist, and for the housing insecure and other low-income residents, affordability is still an issue.
There are resources for free internet for students: internet assistance programs that provide hotspots when needed and videos in multiple languages that help families understand how to use the digital tools provided by SPS — but the necessary technology assistance is still a barrier to digital equity that SPS is working hard to remedy. In partnership with sea.citi, SPS created Technology Resource Centers to assist students and families with everything from device and hotspot support to software guidance. “Since the beginning of school when we mounted these technology resource centers, there was certainly a lot of need, but as the school year is underway, and as folks who signed up for support are learning to use their systems and their devices, the need for more support is declining,” Robinson explains. “The latest data shows they’ve served 4,041 families and staff who have sought assistance and support. Most sites show the number of visits are declining with the last two week totals being 29% lower than the first two weeks.”
Nicholas Merriam, the chief engagement officer with sea.citi, echoed these sentiments. “When the pandemic first came, there was a huge need to provide additional tech support. The district was not set up to provide that volume of tech support, and that really provided the impetus for creating the Family Tech Support Center (FTSC).” The resource centers are a public-private partnership between sea.citi, SPS, Alliance for Education, Amazon in the Community, Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft, and parent and tech volunteers.
SPS also runs TechChecks. “The tech checks, in part, are the teachers and staff checking in with families and seeing if they have internet or not and helping let them know about the sponsored internet sign-up,” explained David Keyes, the digital equity manager at the City of Seattle. “A ton of the responsibility and a ton of the autonomy is given to each individual school,” Robinson noted. “A lot of this work that needs to be done is at the school level, and that’s why I say if there’s anybody who has a need they are urged to make sure that their teacher knows and that their principal knows.”
Another obstacle for SPS is that the Comcast Internet Essentials program is often not sufficient for large families. “In some of those cases where people have the Comcast Internet Essentials, they’ve been supplementing that with additional hotspots for the household. The other thing that they’ve [SPS] been doing to help with that is providing repeaters,” Keyes explained.
Regarding the current status of digital equity, Robinson told the Emerald that “The needs that we see now are technology needs for students just entering the system or students who have a maintenance issue, but otherwise we’ve pretty much concluded with our tech distribution, and so now it’s largely support.” However, Robinson backpedaled when asked directly about the 8,800 students reported to be lacking adequate, reliable internet in May. “There may be some, but that data is a little bit older,” Robinson explained. “We’re relying on each school to let us know if there’s a need.” Robinson’s original remarks were reflected in the October 2 Friday memo from the Superintendent’s Office.
While so much progress has been made in such a short time, the need for updated data is imperative to confirming that every student’s digital needs are being met. “I think that there’s more outreach to do in building awareness,” Keyes said. Merriam, with sea.citi, agreed, noting that “School has historically been a place that families go to, or that kids go to, to learn, and almost on a dime, this model is being completely up-ended and in need of rapid change. I think asking any public institution to make a change of that magnitude on a dime is a very challenging ask.” Although the new distance learning model has its growing pains, Merriam believes that the district is moving in the right direction, and with the Remote Learning Pulse Survey SPS conducted in October, updated data should be available soon.
Moving forward, SPS’s five-year strategic plan, Seattle Excellence, focuses “on supporting Students of Color who are furthest away from educational justice, beginning with African American boys and teens.” The plan also claims to focus on “changing broken systems and undoing legacies of racism in public education by actively becoming an anti-racist educational system.” Robinson explained that Seattle Excellence has a particular focus on Black boys and Black young men since they are the furthest from educational justice. “We would put an intentional focus on those communities to make sure that their needs are met first,” he said.
While working with SPS, sea.citi identified an opportunity for a more strategic focus on digital equity within SPS and are now working with Tableau Foundation to fund a digital equity manager for SPS. “This position will take a very specific eye towards digital inclusion and making sure that our students that are marginalized — that there are programs, tools, and resources that are getting set up for them,” Merriam said. “I see a huge opportunity with this incoming digital equity manager to really ramp up what the district has done around digital equity and really codify it and make sure that it is impactful, long lasting, and effective.”
The City of Seattle is moving into the next phase of the IFA plan, according to Keyes. The long-term plans that the City is working on now include supporting the work that the University of Washington is doing to create a community cellular network called Citizens Broadband Radio Service in order to get connectivity to more residents. The City is also looking into creating WiFi digital equity zones in areas with the least access. “We know WiFi is not the whole solution for folks, although it’s a critical piece for folks experiencing honelessness, for youth, low-income folks on limited income or limited data plans,” Keyes said. “But I think it’s part of digital access and opportunity in our community.” In addition, the City is offering matching funds of up to $25,000 (per qualifying organization) “for community-based organizations to deliver culturally relevant digital inclusion programs that help residents with digital skills training and support, devices, technical support, or help low-income residents access free or low-cost internet information and options.”
“My hat is off to everyone from the central office who has made their career serving students to certainly the educators in our schools,” Robinson shared “Another thing that this entire experience has shown is how much the partnership with families, and guardians, is so crucial for success. I just hope that we can get our students and your students back into schools as soon as possible.”
City of Seattle Resources for Digital Access:
Seattle Public School Resources: