Whatever back to school looks like, it has to serve the kids without internet and tech

Christel Deskins

I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here. This week, I got a survey from my son’s school. It asked, on a scale of “unsure” to “very comfortable,” […]

I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

This week, I got a survey from my son’s school. It asked, on a scale of “unsure” to “very comfortable,” how comfortable are you with your student attending in-person classes this fall?

This was in the same week we learned the U.S. could be headed toward 100,000 coronavirus cases a day, hospitalizations are rising in 12 states, hot spot Arizona delayed the start of its school year and the American Academy of Pediatrics urged schools to hold in-person classes because of the negative social, emotional and academic impact on kids.

I didn’t see an option for “of course I want kids back in school but don’t want students or teachers to get sick or spread the virus to vulnerable parents or grandparents, but yes parents need to be able to work, and we know some kids do fine with distance learning but others struggle and some outright disappear and we can’t leave any child behind.”

That wasn’t one of the five boxes to check.. 

USA TODAY’s Erin Richards reported this week that many kids will be headed toward hybrid schedules, in which they would attend school on alternating days or weeks to maintain physical distancing in class. 

Other schools will give parents the choice: return to school full time, stay home and learn online from your local school or transfer into a full virtual school. Richards also found that, overall, parents said they didn’t like online learning and schools thrust into it weren’t particularly good at it. 

What do parents want? A Gallup poll this month showed a majority (56%) want their kids to go back full time. However,  a USA TODAY poll in late May found 6 in 10 parents said they were more likely to pursue at-home learning options and nearly a third of parents said they were “very likely” to do so.

But there’s a problem with online or hybrid learning. At least 15 million of America’s more than 50 million schoolchildren don’t have either internet access or the right tech for school, a study out Monday found.

In rural areas, internet access may not be available. In large urban areas, it may not be affordable. These are the kids, Richards says, who fell most behind this spring.

The study from Common Sense media doesn’t take into account the thousands of devices provided and wi-fi spots created recently with COVID-19 funding. But still, the report says, it would take about $6 billion to $11 billion to close the divide. 

The study found: 

  • About 10% of all public school teachers, 300,000 to 400,000, don’t have internet access to teach remote classes; about 100,000 don’t have computers.

  • The digital gap is most acute in rural communities and in Black, Latino and Native American homes.

  • While 15 million students don’t have a computer or internet access,  9 million students don’t have either.

We know that teachers, schools, libraries, community groups and museums are doing all they can to keep these kids engaged. This includes Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch, who oversees its 19 museums, 21 libraries and the National Zoo.

The Smithsonian teaches across topic areas, history and science, art and space. “The Smithsonian is the best place for people to cross those lines,” Bunch says.

And he wants to make sure all kids have that opportunity. The Smithsonian reached out to USA TODAY to see if we wanted to collaborate on a printed summer learning guide for kids. They have the educators and the collections, we have the printing presses and news sites nationwide.

It was an easy yes. 

This week we printed 65,000 copies of the Summer Road Trip guide and are delivering them to libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs and community groups across the country. Almost 5,000 went to the remote, sprawling Navajo Nation, which has very limited digital access and high levels of COVID-19. 

We want to make sure the books get into the hands of kids who may not have tech at home. The “Summer Road Trip” guide is 40 pages of games, activities and fun facts about items in the Smithsonian collection, presented in part in both English and Spanish. Anyone can also download the book, free, at SummerRoadTrip.usatoday.com.

As a child, Bunch remembers family trips to visit relatives in North Carolina. “Part of the joy of a road trip for me was reading a book, was taking books from the library, just sort of sitting in the backseat and reading the books and looking out at the scene and trying to continue to learn,” he says. He wants all kids to have that opportunity, to have “access to the education that’s transforming.”

Cover art for Smithsonian-USA TODAY activity guide
Cover art for Smithsonian-USA TODAY activity guide

Eight-year-old (“almost 9”) Ferah Riley misses the library. She misses walking into the kids section and searching the shelves for the Fancy Nancy books. 

At the Phoenix Burton Barr Central Library, you can drive up and check out bundles of kids books and even get breakfast or lunch to go. Kids will also get the Summer Road Trip guide. The library will take some of the booklets to kids in nearby public housing as well.

Ferah pulled up to the library Tuesday with her mom, who says she’s looking for ways to keep Ferah and her brother learning, safely, amid Arizona’s coronavirus surge.

It’s fitting that Fancy Nancy often teaches kids how to deal with disappointment.

The library has been invaluable. It has extensive videos and other learning activities online, but children and teens coordinator Wendy Resnik says there is value in being able to touch and hold something as well. She’s worried about screen time.

“Kids need to color and draw and write,” she says. “Something like this (summer guide) is more valuable, especially for 5- to 10-year-olds, than just having stuff online.”

And that brings us back to this school year. 

I need to fill out my school survey. But I’m thinking way beyond my son’s classroom.

If you’re not in class, how do you reach kids without the necessary tech or internet?

How do you let them touch and color, draw and write?

How do we get bundles of books in their hands? 

Whatever schools do, how do they do it most safely?

I’ve left the boxes blank for now.

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Back to school will have online learning, but many kids lack access

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