In the high-tech hometown of both Google and Khan Academy, a divide over which students have access to necessary technology like computers and internet access is slowing local school districts' ability to offer virtual school.
It's forced educators in Mountain View to grapple with challenging questions of equity and access even while they've had to create entirely new teaching systems.
Read the Voice's coverage of how the digital divide has impacted the Mountain View Whisman School District here.
At the high school level, it took the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, home to Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, two weeks after the school closure's start on March 16 to track down 100 Wi-Fi hotspots. Earlier in the school year, the district had conducted a survey and found that about 100 households didn't have home internet.
The district distributed 40 of the hotspots at the end of March to the families that requested them, but it's still not clear if every student now has home internet access. They have all since been distributed, and the number of students without a laptop and Wi-Fi was "in the teens" at last count, Mike Mathiesen, associate superintendent of business services, told the district's board at its April 20 meeting.
"I'm fairly confident all students have an actual device," said Margarita Navarro, associate superintendent of educational services, to the board. When it comes to Wi-Fi access, she said the district was close to being at 100%, and the district was "aggressively trying to reach" a "small pocket of students."
The district had done the survey of which households needed Wi-Fi at the start of the school year, but didn't feel like it needed to immediately address that gap, she said. Going into next year, she said, the district needs to tackle it right away, rather than wait for a crisis to decide who gets essential services. "So, yes, huge lesson learned," she added.
During the first phase of the district's distance learning plan, which took place between March 23 and April 3, coursework was light and mostly review, according to Superintendent Nellie Meyer. The second phase, which started April 13, set a schedule for students on Tuesdays through Fridays between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and leaves Mondays flexible for other coursework or extended learning. Teachers are also offering office hours each week.
On April 21, the district debuted a "Distance Learning Handbook" laying out clearer expectations for students. The district is using Google Classroom and each week teachers will offer synchronous, or real-time, instruction, as well as asynchronous, or pre-recorded, lessons. Students should check their emails and their teachers' Google Classroom pages daily and complete assignments. In addition, students receive marks as to whether they are engaged or not engaged in their schoolwork based on whether they submit at least 75% of their assignments and interact with each teacher weekly.
The good news is that, heading into the AP exams, which are set to run from May 11 to 22, most students had covered the critical materials for the tests. The AP tests will be administered online and restructured as open-book free-response tests. The exams are intended to test students based on what most had learned by mid-March in their AP classrooms, according to the College Board, which administers the exams.
Between now and the end of the school year, there's also the possibility for all students – regardless of how good their internet access is – to experience other obstacles to academic success.
"We have to recognize that these are tough social-emotional times for students," Navarro said. "This is starting to hit our students."
Students may rely on school as their safe haven and network to connect with adults and peers. "I think there is a certain level of grieving starting to settle in," she said.
Another challenge is that it's still not clear how long the shelter-in-place order – and school closures – will last. Summer school will be offered as distance learning.
And plans to hold a delayed graduation ceremony sometime in the late summer are also on hold, as Gov. Gavin Newsom mentioned potential school impacts running into the fall, Meyer said.
Navarro added that there is the possibility of working with Khan Academy to provide free online resources over the summer to enable academic enrichment opportunities and help students curb summer learning loss.
More recently, however, Newsom said that schools could reopen as soon as late July or early August, with modifications.
During the rollout of the district's distance learning plan, some parents have asked for additional academic rigor. And even in the second phase of the plan, a number of district high school students have reported having substantially less schoolwork and more free time than they had when regular, on-campus school was in session.
At the same time, others have urged the district to focus more broadly on offering students flexibility and ease up on the traditional demands at a time of unprecedented upheaval for many.
The plan builds off of an April 7 decision by the district's board to grade coursework this semester on a credit/no credit system, requiring students' engagement and participation.
That decision was made, in part, due to concerns about the existing inequity in access to digital learning resources.
Here are three different guest opinions published in the Voice about the decision:
● Pro: Credit/no credit grading system is about reality, not charity by David Campbell and Michelle Bissonnette
● Con: Let’s not allow COVID-19 to harm any student’s grades by Phil Faillace