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Buffalo Public Schools grapple with city’s digital divide: ‘It’s just a big equity issue.’

Courtesy of Buffalo Public Schools

It’s now the fourth week of school closures in Buffalo, and remote or distance learning is supposed to be in full swing. But not all students have the same access to technology to help them keep learning.

Two days after Erie County schools announced they would close until April 20, Buffalo Public Schools delivered more than 7,500 laptops to high schoolers around the city. However, third through eighth-graders are still waiting for their district-issued devices.

“We were prioritizing by ninth [grade] through 12 and trying to balance and leverage resources,” said Myra Burden, chief technology officer for Buffalo Public Schools, speaking to WBFO last week about the district’s mass delivery of supplies on March 19. “While we figured out how to handle the elementary school side, that was the decision to use the take home materials in the interim.”

As of Monday, Burden said younger students can expect to get their devices starting next week. But there are no plans for another round of deliveries—parents will have to pick up the laptops on a specific day and at a specific time. Instructions for doing so will be sent in a letter to families, Burden said, and parents and/or guardians should bring the letter with them at their designated pick-up time and location.

Burden also said remote learning doesn’t have to mean online learning.

“There are other ways to learn outside of, you know, just through the device or through the learning materials. For instance, a parent could play Scrabble with an age appropriate child and in that you've got language arts as well as math.”

Credit Buffalo Public Schools
Buffalo Public Schools sent home about three weeks worth of learning material for students in third through eighth grades on March 19, but elementary and middle school students are still waiting to get their district-issued laptops.

Getting creative with student learning is certainly important and encouraged right now, according to both educators and veteran home-school parents. But researchers also warn that unequal computer and internet access can deepen existing educational disparities among students. And Burden said Buffalo is still assessing exactly how many of the district’s nearly 34,000 students have internet access at home.

“We're making estimates based on, I think, what we believe [to be] our high-needs areas, in terms of pockets of town where I think the need is much higher,” Burden said. “We are planning to do a survey and we're just trying to work out all of the details and logistics of that, as well as the efficacy. You know, we would hate to put something out there, and it really doesn't yield the results that we want.”

Burden said the district didn’t want parents to take a survey, not get an immediate answer and then think it was a waste of time. However, a mobile hot spot request form is now live on the district’s website, and Burden said a physical letter about it will be mailed out in order to reach families who don’t have internet.

In 2018, U.S. Census data revealed that internet penetration rates are as low as 36% in some low-income parts of Buffalo, such as the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood and the lower West Side. Analysis by The Buffalo News also found that the city’s internet speeds rank among the slowest in the U.S.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash (top center) speaks to school board members during a virtual work session on April 1.

Speaking during a virtual school board work session on April 1, Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash described disparate internet access across the district as “a big big big challenge…it’s just a big equity issue.”

Cash also addressed the district’s need for more Wi-Fi hot spots to lend to students, starting with high schoolers who already have their district laptops but no internet.

“There are 2,000 hot spots that we do have via Spectrum. Those are operational,” Cash said. “The problem is they’re one-to-one and I wanted to prioritize seniors first for that so that they can stay connected and try to keep them on track for graduation.”

Cash added that the district needs a total of 28,000 hot spots.

“We don’t have anywhere near that at this time, but we’re working on it. We’re working on it.”

Credit Courtesy of Buffalo Public Schools
P.S. #30's fourth grade dual language team, Ms. Arellano, Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Dipirro, hold virtual “office hours” for students.

One way the district is seeking help is by requesting $9.1 million in emergency Smart Schools Bond Act funding from the New York State Education Department. Spectrum is also offering free internet service for 60 days for households with K-12 or college students, even for families with unpaid bills from past subscriptions. But Burden said it’s hard for the school district to know how many families are taking the company up on that offer. Cash also admits there are some families with whom the district has lost touch with entirely.

“The truth is that many families are still in flux over this,” he said during the work session. “Some have been devastated economically, as you know and can imagine, they were already poor and now with this contagion they’ve lost income further. So, I’m finding that I’ve had a lot of families that have moved, they’re moving, and so we’ve lost contact with them.”

Cash said he is strongly urging teachers to check in with students regularly, but the district did not provide direct answers about whether teacher check-ins and remote instruction are required.

“We use a wide array of strategies to reach our students, including but not limited to hard copy refresh of materials every three-four weeks, assignments in Schoology (learning management platform), virtual conferences, phone calls, texts, emails, and Talking Points (for families who require translations),” said Chief Academic Officer Anne Botticelli in a written statement provided to WBFO. “We emphasize the importance of student effort and completion of assignments during these difficult times.”

Credit Courtesy of Buffalo Public Schools
Virtual all-staff meetings are the new normal at P.S. #92 BUILD Community School.

District data and teacher testimonials on social media also indicate that there is a significant amount of learning activity by the students who can get online.

“I think it’s going extremely well,” said Burden, the technology officer. “We’ve seen a large uptick in our use of Schoology,” including the submission of nearly 20,000 tests and quizzes and more than 51,000 assignments, according to Cash’s last weekly report to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. One student—a junior at Leonardo Da Vinci High School named Rifat Chowdhury—even made a Schoology YouTube tutorial for his peers.

Still, research shows that students who tend to struggle in classrooms will struggle even more online. English language learners and children with special education needs are also at greater risk of falling behind. These are challenges Buffalo and other districts across the state will have to continue grappling with for at least several more weeks: On Monday, Gov. Cuomo extended the statewide school closures through April 29.

The state Board of Regents also announced Monday that Regents exams scheduled for June have been canceled. The board said districts will receive new guidance about graduation standards on Tuesday.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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