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Working with some of the most vulnerable families in her community last spring, Sharonne Navas saw first-hand why some families of color needed more than just a tech hotline to help them with their online learning troubles.

In Washington state, where Navas is the director of the Equity in Education Coalition (EEC), many families either didn’t know how to access the tech support provided by districts and companies like Apple, or didn’t feel comfortable because of language barriers. 

There was a “lack of understanding from government agencies” on how to respond to the needs of communities of color, Navas said.

So EEC launched its own call-in center. Navas described it “as an additional supplemental supportive system where we can ask our families, how are you doing getting online?”

The TechConnect Washington Community Helpdesk is multilingual and multicultural — its four staff members are all people of color. Launched in February 2021, the center was fielding around 200 calls by its second week. By week six, the number had increased to 600 to700 calls.

Families asked questions that included everything from “What is Zoom?” or “How do I get into Google classrooms?” to “How do I turn on my internet?” The staff also asked questions: Did callers need help with rent? Food? Finding mental health or health resources?

Members of the help desk team are recent high school grads, familiar with the learning management systems used by schools in the area. And, between them, the staff members who take calls speak a total of eight languages.

Related: Who ya gonna call? Remote learning helpline for teachers…and parents

“That sort of holistic triage is not something that is offered by the school district,” Navas said. “They just want to know what’s broken, how we can help it. Can you bring it in? Let’s get you back on school online. And for us it was more important to make sure that our communities were doing well, so that they can survive this.”

Navas said her staff has “been able to work with the school district[s] in a really good partnership” by making sure families districts might otherwise overlook are connected to the schools and resources they need, including free and reduced-price lunches.

TechConnect is just one of the initiatives launched as part of the Connect Washington Coalition, a group of statewide digital access advocates and community organizations trying to address the digital divide for low-income and communities of color across the state.

“I think one of the things that really happened was our community-based organizations found themselves in this position of having to explain a lot of stuff to our families,” Navas said. “My hope is the call-in center will be that first step into the digital literacy world and digital navigation and really getting our parents to not be afraid of technology and really understand it.”

She also hopes that districts maintain their embrace of community partnerships post-pandemic and continue outreach to communities of color.

“This is a really complementary service to all the stuff that the school districts are doing, but they also know that they can’t do it all,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about a tech call center was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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