Grace Hu Testimony – DC Council Roundtable on DCPS and DCPCS School Reopening – September 21, 2021

Grace Hu

Digital Equity in DC Education

Testimony

September 21, 2021

My name is Grace Hu. I am a DCPS parent and one of the co-leads for the Digital Equity in DC Education parent coalition. Since 2018, our parent group has advocated for a comprehensive multi-year technology plan to ensure that all DCPS students and schools have access to devices, tech support, digital literacy skills, and internet. Today I’d like to provide a status on DCPS technology and urge you to push DCPS to ensure that all schools are tech ready ASAP, not only to prevent further disruptions to learning but also to ensure students can continue to learn in the event of a quarantine or broader shift to virtual learning.

In many cases, the technology challenges we are seeing reflect similar themes that you will hear about other DCPS challenges, including:

  • Even when the funding and policy are in place, the school system has difficulty executing.
  • When adequate technology supports are not centrally and comprehensively provided to every school, there is wide variation in tech resources as well as policy and procedure implementation at the local school level, which exacerbates inequities.

Our testimony to the Council of the Whole from March 2021 highlighted the need to be tech ready at the start of this school year, stating, “We do not need tech challenges to create additional disruptions and barriers as students and teachers work hard to close learning gaps created or exacerbated by the pandemic.” Currently, there are instances in which technology is largely working for schools, but there are also situations in which technology challenges are creating disruptions and barriers for students and teachers.

Devices

Despite the DCPS policy that every student in grades 3-12 and every teacher will be issued a device, there are still schools in which students and teachers are lacking devices. That lack of devices means:

  • Logistical challenges for beginning-of-the-year online assessments
  • Limited access to online programs being used as part of in-school instruction
  •  Teachers and students will not be ready to quickly move to virtual learning during quarantines

The tech situation varies from school to school. For example, in my daughter’s third grade class at Amidon-Bowen Elementary, all students have been issued their own computer to use at school. During the school day, the class logs onto Canvas, DCPS’s online learning management system. If her class were to ever pivot to online learning, the students would know how to access Canvas and will have devices available to use. In contrast, another elementary school across town (in Ward 1) is short over 100 student devices and as of last week also had not received teacher devices.

I urge you to ask DCPS when every single school will have a 1:1 student-device ratio for grades 3-12 and a 1:1 teacher-device ratio. 

Asset Management/Tech Support

In a survey of school leaders that DCPS Central Office conducted over the summer, the top technology concern was asset management. Whether a school has adequate devices largely depends on whether the school was able to collect devices that were issued last school year, get accurate computer counts for their school inventory, and then request additional devices and get them delivered to the school before the start of school or during the first week of school. As we have mentioned before, many schools lack the staff capacity to regularly update their tech inventory, handle the logistics of device distribution and collection, and handle other aspects of tech management.  Until DCPS Central and OCTO provide comprehensive, organized asset management support for schools, there will continue to be wide variation in tech management at schools, depending on the ability and capacity of school staff who already have full-time responsibilities.

We understand that the additional 15 OCTO technicians funded by federal ESSER money will not be onboarded until October at the earliest. This is a system failure. Tech support should be firmly in place in advance of the school year to ensure that all classrooms are well-equipped, and any building infrastructure issues are resolved to enable seamless learning on Day 1. Tech preparedness and support is most critical at the beginning of the year when teachers and students are adjusting to their devices, online learning platforms, and apps, and participating in online assessments to inform teaching and learning.

We continue to hear that OCTO technicians are not always able or willing to address tech issues and that they recommend workarounds that are outside standard protocol rather than address the core issue (see Appendix for example).

Classroom Technology

We continue to hear significant frustration across DCPS schools with Smartboards in classrooms. Issues include:

  • Smartboards are out of warranty and non-functional
  • Lack of compatibility with teacher devices (older Smartboards or Promethean boards are not compatible with new teacher devices)
  • Inability to install needed software on teacher devices
  • Lack of training and support for teachers

The problems with maintaining and refreshing Smartboards, which have existed for years, reflect a larger issue with the school system’s piecemeal approach to technology. When tech purchases are made but not accompanied by a comprehensive plan for regular maintenance and refresh, teachers and students end up with a hodgepodge of classroom technology with minimal assistance from DCPS Central or OCTO.

All the issues I’ve highlighted with devices, tech support, and classroom technology make us highly doubtful that all schools will be ready soon to provide functional, high-quality online learning in the event of quarantines or a larger pivot to virtual learning due to COVID-19.   

Internet

Regarding home internet, hotspots and LTE-enabled devices purchased during the pandemic remain in school inventories. However, policies for taking technology home vary by school.

Regarding school internet (i.e., WiFi inside school buildings), we continue to hear of issues with school WiFi, including students being unable to connect to the DCPS WiFi network. It is not uncommon for teachers and high school students to use their own hotspots on cell phones to access internet while in the school building due to speed and stability issues.

Without strong oversight from Council, technology challenges will continue to be a barrier and distraction for our students and teachers. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.

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