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04.02.2020Community

As schools close due to COVID-19, students shift to online learning

By: Taiia Smart Young
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24/7 tech access helps keep Verizon Innovative Learning students engaged and safe.

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An empty classroom. Photo: Jeremy Tufts

Transitioning from bustling physical classrooms full of learning students to virtual spaces housed on the internet is a Herculean task for any educator. But when the state of Florida announced on March 13, 2020, that it would close schools in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Miami’s Rubén Darío Middle School was primed for the challenge. As a participant in Verizon Innovative Learning, each student already had a device and data plan they could use at home, making it easier for teachers to tap into the trove of digital classroom resources they were already using so students can continue learning afar.

“Verizon provided Rubén Darío Middle School’s administrators, faculty, staff and students an opportunity to transition to distance learning without any major disruption due to having devices already in hand,” says Vanessa Quintana, Verizon Innovative Learning coach at Rubén Darío. “We were equipped with the experience, skills and knowledge to facilitate learning online.”

Keeping schools safe and prepared

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that COVID-19 spreads between people in close contact with each other. Accordingly, Education Week reports that more than 124,000 schools nationwide have closed to protect students and staff, sending 55.1 million U.S. students home. The decision hits kids in underserved communities hardest; many of them are at risk of falling behind because they don’t have devices or reliable internet service at home to access virtual classrooms and learning programs. These tools are key to keeping up with today’s digital economy. And in times like this, when traditional classroom learning is not an option, they are a necessity.

Verizon Innovative Learning is part of the solution. Since 2014, the Verizon initiative has addressed barriers to digital inclusion by providing free technology, free access, hands-on experiences and professional development to transform the learning experience for under-resourced students so they can develop the skills and confidence they need to emerge as leaders. All schools in the program are classified as Title I institutions, with 84 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. But closed schools often mean a disruption in meals; that’s why Verizon made a $5 million donation to No Kid Hungry’s coronavirus relief efforts.

Setting students up for success

Debbie Bermeo, Verizon Innovative Learning instructional technology coach at John A. Sutter Middle School in Winnetka, California, feels “uniquely prepared” for educating students remotely. “Teachers are diligently reaching out to students via virtual video calls and our school is leveraging the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Learning Management System for uploading assignments, messaging students and parents, grading and more,” says Bermeo. She knows this wouldn’t be possible if all of Sutter’s students didn’t have devices in their backpacks. “We can proceed with confidence knowing that our students, teachers and community can move forward in ways that will help students find success.”

Verizon knows student success can be tied to the right access. Usually, students receive devices with 10GB, but since March 16, 2020, Verizon increased the data plans to 30GB per month through June 30. This is a crucial upgrade for families with multiple children streaming science videos, conferencing with English teachers and joining virtual band practice.

The data plan increase has truly been a gift and a godsend,” says Maria Mitrani, assistant principal at Mater Academy Charter Middle High School in Florida, which also participates in Verizon Innovative Learning. “It has given our families a lot of peace of mind and also given our teachers and administrators the confidence to plan lessons for students knowing they won’t have trouble accessing them.

Closing the gap

In recent weeks, many companies have begun offering free technology and services to help welcome all students into the connected world. It’s a good start, but these programs are needed year-round, not just in response to a pandemic. “We all need to continue working hard to close the technology gap in education. The next Ellen Ochoa, Katherine Johnson or Elon Musk might be sitting at home, bursting with creative ideas and a vision that can positively reshape American business and society—but how will their ideas come to life if they remain disconnected?” wrote Rose Stuckey Kirk, Verizon’s chief corporate social responsibility officer, in a LinkedIn post titled “The Digital Divide Imperative.”

For the time being, Mitrani says Verizon Innovative Learning has transformed how her school educates students: “This flexibility of mind and embrace of technology began when Mater Academy became a Verizon Innovative Learning school. Small adjustments in instruction have built a culture of innovation and preparedness for such a time as this.”

About the author(s): 

Taiia Smart Young is a content producer and editor for Gyrate Media.