Since COVID-19 first shut down in-person learning, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has distributed devices and internet for thousands of students. But for months, district officials haven’t be able to answer these questions with certainty:
How many kids actually need the technology? And does it work well enough to meet remote learning demands?
They’re questions central to conducting school online and closing digital access and learning gaps, especially for Seattle, whose schools appear to be staying remote for the foreseeable future.
But after school buildings closed last spring, Seattle and other districts didn’t take complete stock of how many students needed devices and internet, instead relying on student poverty rates and drawing estimates from surveys. As a result, data on technology access for students during the pandemic has been spotty.
About 4,000 of SPS’ over 50,000 students haven’t been engaging regularly with online learning this fall, half of whom the district suspects are having issues with devices or connectivity, according to district spokesperson Tim Robinson.
In some cases, the lack of firm information has made estimating the appropriate response to the problem harder and more time-consuming, especially when it comes to internet connectivity. And the main solution offered by school districts — discounted or free plans offered by internet service providers — sometimes results in internet access too slow to handle multiple kids learning online at the same time, according to industry guidelines.
The most comprehensive statewide effort to get clarity on student tech needs — voluntary state surveys of school districts in May and August — only requested estimates. Based on the answers it received, the state education department projects that between 81% to 89% of Washington state students had adequate technology and connectivity for remote learning.
“Some districts did a good job of collecting data and provided some reasonable