Minding the gap: How the Hamilton County school district is meeting the needs of students in the digital divide

Digital learning can present challenges even when students are logged in, as there may be a lack of engagement. / Staff Illustration by Dylan Chesser/Getty Images/iStock/Sinenkiy
Digital learning can present challenges even when students are logged in, as there may be a lack of engagement. / Staff Illustration by Dylan Chesser/Getty Images/iStock/Sinenkiy

For Jamie Noble and her family, the transition to remote learning was anything but easy.

Noble's son Michael, a fourth-grader at East Ridge Elementary, has autism, and many of the traditional learning methods Hamilton County Schools first rolled out in March weren't good options for him, she says.

His school worked to keep in contact and provided learning packets and multiple Zoom sessions each week. But soon, Zoom became too overwhelming for young Michael.

Noble feels like more could have been done, and she is concerned about what learning will look like for her son in the new school year.

"As I work full time, there was not time for me to devote to the face-to-face every day that he needed," she says. "What time there was spent was a lot of frustration and crying."


When the novel coronavirus hit the shores of the United States in early 2020, schools closed and districts rushed to provide remote instruction to millions of students sequestered in their homes. In moving to all-remote instruction, there was little doubt that some students would likely be more adversely affected: those without internet or devices, students with disabilities, young learners and those with less parental engagement.

In Hamilton County's public schools, according to the state report card for the 2018-2019 school year, the latest data available, about 35% of students were identified as economically disadvantaged; 6.2% were English learners; and 12.8% had disabilities.

Internet and Device Access

In the past decade, integrating technology into education has become a worldwide trend, with more than 75% of classrooms in the United States reporting they used computers daily in 2019, according to a poll conducted by Cambridge International. But, says Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, the pandemic has brought concerns about technology and opportunity to the forefront as such tools have become the main - and sometimes only - way students are now engaging.

Pre-pandemic, he says, some educators may have assigned work that needed internet access without a second thought. "I don't know how many times people really thought about 'Does that child have internet? Is there an internet gap here?' It just made the conversation a lot more pronounced."

Nationwide, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center during the early months of the pandemic, low-income families were three to four times more likely to have students need to complete work on a cellphone, have to seek public Wi-Fi due to lack of a reliable connection at home, or not be able to complete schoolwork because they lacked access to a computer altogether.

Rural and urban communities reported similar findings of having less access when compared to their suburban counterparts.

In Hamilton County, students in public middle and high schools already had one-to-one access to Chromebooks, meaning each had their own personal laptop or tablet to use. In late March, when it became clear that those devices would become the only lifeline to lessons, the district worked to distribute devices to those in elementary school who didn't have access to one at home.

Johnson says the district was well-positioned in terms of technology as the school board has made significant investments in devices in the past few years. HCS introduced its One-to-One Initiative in the 2018-2019 school year.

"It puts you in a situation where even though the pandemic exposed real challenges, we've been pretty nimble and been able to respond to them," he says.

But increased technology doesn't always mean increased access, especially for families without Wi-Fi.

In August, Johnson estimated that approximately one-quarter of the more than 45,000 students the district serves were without internet connection, a number mirrored by 2018 census estimates that projected about 77% of all households in the county had Wi-Fi.

Early on, Hamilton County Schools worked with EPB to place hotspots to provide free internet access in various school and community center parking lots so that students could come and complete their work while maintaining social distance. As the new school year begins, initiatives to provide quality digital access to all students continue, including EPB's recently announced multimillion-dollar plan to provide free, high-speed, at-home internet service for all low-income students currently without Wi-Fi for at least the next decade.

The school district and EPB joined with several local foundations to roll out the service to about 28,500 economically challenged students - more than 60% of those currently enrolled.

(Read more: EPB to provide internet for Hamilton County Schools students at no charge for low-income families)

Still, digital learning can present challenges even when students are logged in, as there may be a lack of engagement. "It's harder in an online environment to keep students engaged because of the lack of social interaction," says Carolyn Heinrich, PhD., a professor of Public Policy and Education and Economics at Vanderbilt University whose research focuses on digital learning and equity.

Students with disabilities

In a classroom setting, students with disabilities usually have a team of teachers, specialists and aids to provide personal and customized learning plans to fit their specific needs. Remote learning made it hard to accommodate the students' needs.

While the district strove to continue to provide services to students with individualized education plans in the Exceptional Education program, it likely wasn't a perfect system, Johnson admits.

"[Some districts] basically cut off all learning in the spring because they didn't know how they were going to provide services for special ed, and that wasn't the right approach to us," he says. "We want to continue to provide as much education as we possibly can and then let's figure out what we don't know. [Our Exceptional Education team] did a really good job trying to figure those things out, and they'll still be some things to figure out as we go in the fall."

But Noble and her son felt lost in that gap of "what we don't know."

"I received as much support as possible from one of his Exceptional Education teachers, but it was mostly encouragement about only doing what he could and not being stressed," says Noble. "No additional attempts at accommodations were made."

Younger students

According to Johnson and Heinrich, younger students also present unique challenges when it comes to remote learning. They may have more trouble staying focused and accessing resources, and teachers have to strike a delicate balance between technology use and screen time concerns.

"There's always the question of how much technology is appropriate - for a student in any grade, really, but in particular at a very young age," says Johnson. "Developmentally, when they're beginning to deal with components of literacy and reading and understanding and foundational pieces with numbers, having that direct instruction from a teacher becomes very important. But there are some resources and supports."

Many of the district's younger students were given printed homework packets to supplement their digital learning and limit the amount of time spent online.

Those in K-2 were likely also more in need of adult guidance and supervision while learning from home, as teachers couldn't provide much personal support for younger kids who, in general, have less experience with technology.

"Particularly for younger students, learning happens much better when there's a capable adult able to assist or interact with them," Heinrich says. "And you can imagine teachers trying to do this online. They can't be teaching to a classroom and individually troubleshoot student access issues."

Parental engagement

Stay-at-home mom Tahnika Rodriguez says she was able to provide support for her Westview Elementary fourth-grader, Chloe. But though she was able to stay home with her daughter, she still had concerns about how well Chloe was learning. Rodriguez, after all, is not a teacher.

"I don't want her to fall behind," the young mom says. "I do have that fear that if we're home a lot, I have that fear of her falling back."

Still, Rodriguez is grateful to have the opportunity to stay home and act as teacher for her daughter - something many parents can't do.

"I know that [keeping my daughter on track] will require more of a proactive approach on my end, and I'm willing to do that, to supplement her learning with tutors and all of that," she says. "But for people who can't afford to do that, my heart goes out to them. I know not everybody can do that."

Minding the gap

While there are groups of students who are more likely to have fallen between the cracks during the pandemic, figuring out exactly who needs what support is not a clear-cut task due to the lack of insight typically gained through standardized testing. In Tennessee and many other places across the country, testing requirements were waived in favor of causing as little stress as possible to students and teachers at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

(Read more: Tennessee legislature drops student testing requirements amid coronavirus crisis)

In Hamilton County, counselors and support teams reached out to families of students who failed to log on or made contact in an attempt to re-engage. Efforts also included local nonprofits, such as the YMCA which teamed up with the district and the Tennessee Department of Education to provide learning services over the spring and summer for students with parents deemed essential workers.

"I just really am very proud of the work all these providers and the district have done to come together," says Bill Rush, branch director of the J.A. Henry Community YMCA located in the Westside area of downtown. "[It's] unprecedented, and with the work that EPB has done, I hope other communities throughout the country can take a look at what has happened and continue and maybe learn from that and see that digital access is extremely important, especially during this time."

This summer, the district also launched a targeted program at 25 Hamilton County schools for high-risk students who may have fallen behind during the spring. More than 1,900 elementary and middle school students were enrolled in in-person instruction for three weeks in an attempt to bolster any instruction and learning lost during the months out of school.

(Read more: Hamilton County Schools' summer catch-up program reached more than 1,900 students)

As the new school year gets underway, Johnson says efforts will continue to identify both who needs help catching up and how to best to bridge the gap for those who are behind their peers.

Bridging the gap

While keeping students safe amid a pandemic makes providing equitable education more difficult, Heinrich says there are things school districts can do to mitigate some of the concerns for digital integration.

These include offering blended learning models that include both in-person and online education; finding ways to have small group interactions with students over video chat; and possibly prioritizing whatever in-person instruction is available for students without the needed technological and parental support.

It will be a challenge, to be sure, but Johnson sees a silver lining.

"It's kind of like building a house. If you don't have the foundation, whatever you do in the house wouldn't make any difference, and as we build students that are 'future ready,' I think it has potential to be transformational," he says of the focus on access for all.

With that in mind, he adds, students will have more accountability in terms of attendance and benchmarks now that schools and families have had time to plan and choose what model of learning they're most comfortable with, including partial face-to-face and online-only options.

When it comes down to it, Johnson says that in-person, individualized learning is what is best for students, but he recognizes that's a goal to be reached in a safe manner.

"This whole conversation is one of the key reasons I think it's important to try to get back to school," he says. "It's because there are students who not only had the access challenge but also have the home support challenge.

"These are kids that have been out since March, and so we've got to do everything in our power to make sure that we're continuing to close opportunity gaps for students and position them to be successful."

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