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As the start of the 2020-21 school year approaches, states and school districts are wrestling with decisions about when, how and whether school will take place inside brick-and-mortar classrooms.

No matter the Day One plans in your local area this fall, every school district must be ready for partially or fully remote school days. Last-minute decision-making is the new normal, as schools and districts vet a multiplicity of strategies and applications to support their reliance on digital learning in a pandemic.

The problem stems from the fact that when schools closed in the spring, districts and educators selected their digital instructional solutions quickly, often with insufficient vetting and little-to-no district-wide consistency. The process was born of necessity — it was emergency management.

When the transition happened in March, administrators in our region of Washington state had roughly two weeks to evaluate, purchase and train teachers to use a variety of ed-tech products — from learning management systems and video-conferencing tools to complex, interactive software. And that two weeks was more time than many districts had.

Related: What if public schools never reopen?

For Highline schools — based on input from parents, data from local agencies, state guidance and the needs of the most vulnerable students in our district — we’ll be starting with all students in fully remote distance-learning. But digital delivery raises serious questions about the educational soundness of digital products as well as the protections they offer for student privacy.

One of the largest concerns, though, is equity — not just how we must fund solutions to address disparities in student access to digital devices and broadband Internet, but how students safely engage to drive learning. Safeguarding equity is particularly important in my district in suburban Seattle, where 69 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches and 29 percent are non-native English speakers.

In fact, it’s so important that our district views all decisions through our “equity lens,” which aims to increase equity in educational technology to reduce inequities within the district, including disproportionality in student outcomes.

As the district’s chief technology officer, I co-direct a district-wide team devoted to maintaining student equity. When Covid-19 forced us to close schools and move to at-home instruction, the first task of the Digital Tools team was to ensure that all students had devices and Internet access at home so they could partake in daily instruction. This was a critical first step.

Without devices and broadband access, a significant percentage of our students would have missed classes and fallen behind, losing critical months of instruction. But access alone wasn’t enough. It also was vital that we selected, and then supported student engagement with, the right ed-tech tools to use on those devices — not just to promote equity, but to protect private student information, too.

Related: As we talk about reopening schools, are the teachers ok?

In the weeks leading up to at-home instruction, teachers and school administrators began scrambling to find the right technology for their student populations. Our Digital Tools team saw requests to review digital tools increase exponentially — from a pre-Covid-19 average of three to five a month to that many every day. An equity lens led the team to evaluate technologies along five dimensions:

  1. Who are the groups affected by the technology? What are the potential effects on these groups?
  2. Does this technology have unintended consequences, such as ignoring or worsening existing disparities?
  3. How have we intentionally involved stakeholders who are also members of the communities affected by this technology?
  4. What are the barriers to a more equitable implementation of this technology?  
  5. How will we mitigate any negative effects and address any barriers that we’ve identified?

The team also reviewed how much the technology will cost our district and how practical it would be to maintain a long-term relationship with the company — both of which are important components to student success.

But access and vetting were only part of the equation. Once the Digital Tools team finished reviewing the ed-tech, our teachers were free to focus on their new mission: getting kids to interact with the technology, then verifying that the technology was having the desired effects on outcomes. Understanding how students engage with technology, and how that correlates with student achievement, is an important step toward closing achievement gaps.

Promoting equity in the modern school district takes work, focus and an embrace of systems that may be new to district leaders. My district uses LearnPlatform as its system for managing the ed-tech library, streamlining our workflows and informing our decision-making with real-time information.

During our Covid-19 response, that helped to ensure teachers protected our student data and that our students’ families — some of whom had never had access to a district device — didn’t access digital tools that may have violated district policies. But it also helped us maintain our focus by viewing all of our ed-tech decisions through an equity lens. 

In a global pandemic, providing safe, cost-effective learning to students requires an intentional, district-wide approach. In my district, having a clear process in place, along with the tools to communicate with the Digital Tools team, made it possible to keep up.

It’s an ongoing process we intend to continue in the fall — regardless of where learning takes place.

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

Mark Finstrom is chief technology officer for Highline Public Schools in Burien, Washington, a district just outside Seattle that serves approximately 19,000 students.

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