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The Challenges And Victories Of SFUSD’s Weeks-Long Effort To Bridge The Digital Divide

Courtesy of Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson, a 7th grade math teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School, hosts a one-on-one Zoom lesson with student Javier Aguilar, on surface area.

Rolling out full-on distance learning assignments when only more affluent students could participate, SFUSD decided, would only deepen the achievement gap. Step One? Figuring out how many students needed devices. 

Click the play button above to listen to the story.

San Francisco Unified teachers started logging on to meet with kids and assign work on April 13 — about three weeks ago. By then, most students had been assigned a single signon and password that opened the door to Google Classroom, Zoom chats, and all kinds of other online platforms. 

But schools had been shuttered for a whole month before that. So, what took so long? According to Melissa Dodd, the district’s chief technology officer, it was “the exacerbation of existing inequities that we’re feeling each and every day.” 

For many, mid-March may feel like eons ago. Sheltering in place has a way of warping time. But when the district first announced school closures, they were only supposed to last for three weeks. Dance teacher Shona Mitchell, who teaches at several elementary schools, made that clear in the first video she posted for students on her website.

Her goal back then, she told the kids, was to "share some videos with you so you can dance and move and just get your wiggles out while you’re stuck at home for these few weeks."

“Stay healthy, stay safe, wash your hands,” she concludes, “and I will see you in April!” 

Not quite. April came and went, and now, students aren’t expected at school in person until at least July, and possibly fall. But there’s another reason why those early weeks were all about low-pressure voluntary read-alongs and breathing exercises: The district was scrambling to close a digital divide that hadn’t even been fully quantified. 

As the district’s head of technology, Dodd oversees all data systems, technical devices, and more. She knew that plenty of students didn’t have the computers and Internet access they needed to learn online. So, as teachers like Mitchell checked in with students and steered resources their way to help them de-stress, the district launched a frenzied effort to get as many needy families as possible ready for online learning. 

Old and incomplete district data indicated that about 14 percent of students didn’t have computers at home, Dodd said. But as her team quickly learned, “the need is much higher than that.” 

"Students may have sheltered in place with somebody else, with an aunt, with an uncle, with a family friend."

SFUSD is prioritizing 3rd through 12th-grade students for digital learning, in part because little ones have trouble focusing on online educational material for long stretches. We now know that at least a fourth of students in that older age group needed home devices. And at least a tenth of families needed help with Internet access. 

The first hitch? There was no way to get a handle on those numbers without getting in touch with families. Cell phone numbers for the neediest families often go cold. Plus, Dodd says, “Students may have sheltered in place with somebody else, with an aunt, with an uncle, with a family friend.”

The task of tracking students down fell to teachers, social workers, and other staff. As schools launched those efforts, Dodd told principals to get back to their campuses and grab all the devices kids usually use in class only, Chromebooks that were wired into special carts and had to be disassembled. Then, masked educators stationed at school sites set up pick-up sites, checking student IDs, assigning each device an “asset tag,” and sending families on their way. 

By then, Dodd said, she was pretty those devices wouldn’t stretch far enough. So she ordered more, just like thousands of districts around the country. Enter hitch number two: 

“There was a major impact and still is on the supply chain of really all technology,” Dodd said. “Same thing with hotspots. Tried to get orders of hotspots in, and then similarly, hotspots aren’t available and there’s a backlog.”

Hotspots allow anyone in an area with cell phone service to access the Internet. But, in hilly San Francisco, they’re not for everyone. Because, hitch number three: “Some neighborhoods and areas of our city don’t have strong cellular service,” Dodd said. 

On top of that, plenty of families who had Internet access didn’t have good enough access, or bandwidth, for an interactive video chat. So, the district teamed up with Internet Service Providers and began acquiring “super spots” that can provide a bunch of connections at a time. For single-room-occupancy hotels, homeless shelters, and some public housing developments. But gaps in access remain.

“I do think the connectivity need is still high,” Dodd said. “This is a national challenge and in my opinion a national crisis.”

The coronavirus pandemic has brought that reality home, prompting state officials to place bridging the digitlal divide at the top of its priority list for public school students. Last month, California’s “first partner” Jennifer Siebel Newsom noted in an online video message that “50 percent of low-income families and 42 percent of families of color in California are worried about distance learning because they don’t have a personal device at home. To all of these families,” she continued, “I want you to know that you’ve been on the governor’s and my mind every day since this crisis started.”

The challenges are varied and numerous. While some wealthy districts in California launched interactive distance learning right out of the gate, plenty of other districts are just getting started, in part because they didn’t have a stockpile of Chromebooks to distribute or had not formed partnerships with Internet Service Providers. In rural areas, meanwhile, lots of students live where Internet access just doesn’t exist. 

And even within SFUSD, not all schools are having the same success helping families in need.

Maria Aguilar Osejo has two boys. She says it took three visits to her fifth grader’s elementary school to get a Chromebook. And she hasn’t been able to reach his teacher with questions. Her experience has been much better with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School — which her older son, Javier, attends. 

Educators there contacted her immediately, got Javier a computer and loaned Aguilar a hotspot — she had maxed out the use of her personal hotspot on her cell phone and discovered that only one Internet Service Provider even offers broadband in her neighborhood. The school, she said, even raised donations to give families in need grocery gift cards. Everything, she said, her son needs, “to be able to stay connected and be able to continue studying and educating himself.” 

Leslie Hu, a social worker at the middle school, said families are facing such stressors at home that group Zoom gatherings are now voluntary and focused on catching up, playing games, and making sure kids are OK. Meanwhile, teachers are scheduling lessons one-on-one at times that work for families. Javier’s math teacher, Michael Johnson, recently recorded their Zoom lesson on surface area. 

“Do you want to type or do you want me to type?” Mr. Johnson asks Javier as they dig into the material together. Javier is backlit and soft-spoken. “You type please, he answers.” 

They go over the basics, length times width, as Mr. Johnson grabs a puzzle box off his home shelf to illustrate the concept. “That kind of coming back a little bit now,” he asks Javier. “We talked about it a really long time ago, like two months ago.”

The need for help with technology access is great. At Javier’s school, for example, three-fourths of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. That ratio holds true for Cesar Chavez Elementary School as well. At that campus, fully 85 percent of the third through fifth graders have needed Chromebooks. And, Zareen Poonen Levien, the school’s curriculum technology integration specialist, said staff are continuing to reach out “via text or phone since a lot of our families aren’t connected with email.”

Levien’s job is focused entirely on digital learning, or as she explains, “using technology to integrate with curriculum to elevate the instruction.” Not every district school has an expert like her. The school’s technological savvy, though, helped it get a head start. During parent-teacher conferences, in the days just before schools closed, Levien said, they realized they had to work fast to update family contacts or risk losing touch.

Still, they realize that there are still families out there without devices for their little ones, or struggling to access the Internet. For them, Cesar Chavez Elementary is among the schools that started its own YouTube channel, because, Levien explains, YouTube “is so widely available on smartphones.”

Levien has contributed. In one, she sings a song in Spanish about an elephant, with help from her own two boys, ages 6 and 9. And in another, she reads aloud from a book by Sandra Cisneros, about hair. 

“Everyone in my family has different hair,” she reads in Spanish — some straight, some curly, and the little narrator’s papi’s, like a broom. 

SFUSD is continuing to get devices into the hands of families, mostly by mail and central office pickup. As of May 1, the district had loaned 12,100 Chromebooks and 2900 hotspots to students in grades 3 through 12. Families that need technology assistance should visit this SFUSD website. 

And for any who lack the connectivity to fill in online forms, SFUSD has set up a phone line — 415-340-1716 — for all families with questions or in need of support. Hours of operation are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m., but callers can leave a voicemail at all hours.