Student School Contact an Equity Concern in the Age of COVID-19
COVID-19 closed schools in Nevada in mid-March as the state grappled with the rapidly expanding pandemic. With little guidance from the federal government, states and school districts came up with ad hoc plans on how to best respond to mandatory school closures, and continue trying to teach and stay in contact with students. The answer was digital learning.
Unfortunately, the move to digital learning initially left over 120,000 students (27% of CCSD students) in Clark County School District (CCSD) without access to learning (Source: Nevada’s Digital Divide; Guinn Center for Policy Priorities; 2020). This was certainly not the fault of the district, as no one was prepared for the changes that disrupted our lives on a global scale. In actuality, the pandemic-related closures exposed the deep digital divide that exists between students in poverty, and especially those from African-American and minority backgrounds. I believe that every educator in Nevada is committed to bridging this digital divide for all students. Nevada needs to move forward with solutions to make sure that every student has the computer and internet access they need to learn when school resumes in August.
When the shift to digital learning occurred, adequate computer and internet became as vital as paper and pencil to student learning. Without these tools, massive segments of the Nevada student population were left without access to learning that they previously received just by walking into school each morning. Some families may have a computer at home, but they may have several children who need to access it. In many rural areas, high speed internet access is sporadically available at best. In Round Mountain, Nevada, When the power is down, so is the broadband. Sometimes students lose internet access for days at a time.
As the days and weeks passed, student learning came to a grinding halt for all students. Students and their families were struggling to cope with the sudden unemployment, shortages of food and basic staples, lack of money for rent, and lack of adequate access to technology.
Compounding these challenges, stress became a huge factor for students according to J4NG data. Student requests for assistance on how to deal with stress skyrocketed among Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (J4NG) students (reference J4NG Coronavirus Response Dashboard here: www.j4ng.org/COVIDresponse). In fact, the most frequent request for help that J4NG staff received from students was help in dealing with stress.
Confronted with these challenges, the J4NG staff immediately recognized the absolutely vital need to remain in contact with students during the crisis on a weekly basis, and to help students receive assistance with their short term needs and help with stress. J4NG staff sprang into action, delivering food, providing donated computers to students who lacked these basic tools of learning, and putting on their mentoring hats to help students deal with the crisis and continue learning and preparing for the future. Many requests required partnership and collaboration, and J4NG connected students to the help they needed from partner school districts, social services agencies, and fellow nonprofit agencies.
A great example of the J4NG approach is reflected in this story about the heroism of a J4NG staff. J4NG Coordinator Verleana Bright traveled to Pahrump from Las Vegas, joined by Pahrump Specialist Robert Nielson to deliver food to one of his students who lived too far from the town, and whose family did not have a dependable car to get food aid in the city. Ms. Bright noted the family’s grocery list; items such as bread, veggies, fruit, meat, eggs, milk, flour & corn tortillas, bought the much needed staples and traveled from North Las Vegas to Pahrump immediately. William and his family received food delivered to their front door. When Verleana asked William how was he doing, he replied that he was fine, but was anxious to get back to school. This is one of many examples where Ms. Bright and other J4NG staff members are meeting students’ basic needs and preparing them for graduation.
At J4NG, we set out to contact students at least once per week, and to keep them in learning mode by continuing to teach previously introduced content to students. Our Specialists went to great lengths to contact students. Because of their hard work, J4NG was able to achieve 99.8% contact with students across Nevada and logged over 45,000 in contact with students. During the two-month period school was in session virtually amidst the pandemic, J4NG had an average of 13.5 contact hours per student (Source: J4NG Coronavirus Response Dashboard, June 17, 2020).
As summer quickly passes by, J4NG staff members are preparing a virtual teaching and learning plan, and are keeping an eye on how the Nevada Department of Education and our local districts’ plans to address the crisis in the fall semester. We are ready to work in partnership so that together, we can make virtual learning more effective and accessible for all students.
J4NG Specialists are undergoing intensive training on using virtual learning tools to promote contact and advance learning. J4NG is also infusing the JAG Advantage (a national JAG commitment) to ensure that our students receive all the help they need to succeed. The JAG Advantage consists of our triple commitment to providing excellent instruction that is project-based, trauma informed instructional practices and employer engagement.
J4NG’s driving purpose during the pandemic crisis can be best characterized by the phrase, “short-term needs, long-term dreams.” While we continue to address short term needs, we know that helping students achieve their long-term dreams of college and career will be the economic driver we need to bring Nevada up out of the depths of economic despair. The most recent proof of the resiliency of our students and the effectiveness of the J4NG approach is in the graduation rate for the class of 2020: a stunning 97.74%!