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Spanish-speaking families
Two students who received laptops because of a parent-led effort to close the digital divide for Spanish-speaking families in Clark County, Nevada. Credit: Courtesy of Valeria Gurr

When the Clark County School District in Las Vegas announced it would be staying entirely remote this year, mother and education advocate Valeria Gurr was immediately concerned about how the decision would affect low-income and Spanish-speaking families, especially those with students who are English language learners. She worried that the district might fail to provide enough support, as it did in the disastrous transition to remote learning last spring, when one third of the district’s 314,848 students never got online because they didn’t have the technology, according to reporting from the Las Vegas Sun.

For English language learners, who make up more than 5 million students in public schools across the country, the transition to remote learning has been particularly hard.

The district has been trying to avoid a repeat of the March transition, offering low-income students thousands of devices it was able to purchase with the help of federal dollars. But, despite handing out about 10,000 devices a day in the weeks leading up to the schools’ remote reopening, the district had still failed to reach some 19,000 students who were waiting for a device as of August 24, when classes began, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Gurr, a Latina who still views herself as an English language learner, speaks to low-income families regularly in her role as the Nevada state director for the nonprofit Nevada School Choice Coalition, a project of the American Federation for Children. Although her 3-year-old son hasn’t yet entered the public schools, she’s heard from many parents how challenging the transition to virtual learning was last spring. Many had trouble coping, even though they had resources to draw on, she said. “Imagine what it is for Hispanic families that don’t speak English and … don’t have the technology.”

Curious to know how many families in her community were still struggling, Gurr turned to a social media group she had started for Spanish-speaking parents for an answer. The group, “CCSD Padres y Madres,” has grown from 200 parents to a little over 1,200 parents in just a few weeks. Gurr asked group members if they had a laptop. The response was “massive,” she said.

Within minutes of posting her question, Gurr began to receive messages from concerned parents who didn’t have access to devices for their kids or didn’t know how to get one from the school district. That was on Aug. 12, two weeks before school was set to start in Clark County.

Gurr, with help from Clark County teacher Silvina Jover and Nevada State Board of Education member Felicia Ortiz jumped into action to see what she could do before students were required to log in for the first day of classes.

First, Gurr created a device request form in Spanish, asking parents for the names of their school-age children, the schools their children attend and how many devices the family need, then she posted it in the group. In the month since that initial post, she’s received almost 550 device requests from Spanish-speaking families, and has already passed out about 162 laptops to families in need. Initially, Gurr, Jover and Ortiz filled the demand by asking their friends to donate laptops, but, as the list grew, local businesses and donors from across the state began to donate as well.

A student shows off the laptop she received thanks to of a parent-led effort to close the digital divide for Spanish-speaking families in Clark County, Nevada. Credit: Courtesy of Valeria Gurr

Families that received devices began uploading photos of their kids with the donated laptops to the parents’ social media group, which Gurr said was a good way for members to hold each other accountable and verify the devices were indeed reaching students. She credits those photos for helping the campaign really take off, after the Facebook post and photos garnered the attention of local and Spanish-language news outlets.

“A lot of the times organizations ask for money and then you don’t see the result,” Gurr said. “That was very important for me because we’re taking this money for people and I want the community to see it.”

The initiative Gurr launched has now grown into a “Donate a Laptop Campaign” through the nonprofit for which she works. Gurr said she reached out to several community and state partners including the Bank of Nevada, the Nevada Bankers Association, Guinn Center and Sage Sustainable Electronics to ask for donations. The Bankers Association ended up being a big help, Gurr said, because it sent the request out to all its banks. Some sent money donations, while others sent laptops directly.

An ongoing challenge, Gurr said, has been a shortage of devices due to high demand and major supply chain delays. Every day she hears from families and students who need devices; she hopes to find additional funding through grants or from individual donors to reach at least another hundred families in need. Just recently, Gurr received a heartbreaking call from a ninth grade student who was still without a computer, two weeks after school began.

Although the school district is now trying to connect families through a “great marketing campaign,” people still fall through the cracks, Gurr said. For example, when the school district launched a portal providing resources to help families with remote learning, it was in was English only, she said. That changed only after advocates reminded district staff of the need for a Spanish-language version. “That shouldn’t be something that we have to remind you to do,” Gurr said.

The Clark County School District said in a statement that as of Sept. 21, it was still working to confirm that 9,857 students have both a device and internet connectivity. Ninety-nine percent of students had been marked present at least once this school year, according to the district. Many “may be using a home computer or communicating with teachers by phone and doing pencil and paper type work,” the emailed statement said. “There are canvassing efforts to reach out to students and their families by knocking on doors, following social distancing, to make that face to face contact if necessary to ensure we are reaching our students.”

For many of the district’s Spanish-speaking families, the confusing and chaotic launch of remote learning has highlighted a continued lack of access to support and resources for the community, Gurr said.

“It’s not enough with having an email and a phone number, you have to have all your material translated,” said Gurr. “You have to have a process. And you have to understand that our communities that are disadvantaged, or because they’re just different … are going to need a little bit of extra help.”

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 Spanish-speaking families 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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