Let’s Be Honest: The Digital Divide for NYC Students Remains Wide and Deep. What Needs to Change?

On April 15th, NYCDOE Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza spoke alongside high level administrators and heavy weights from the education technology (edtech) industry about the move to Remote Learning during this COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar hosted by Tech & Learning was billed like so: “Hear how the NYC DOE launched a remote learning program in the nation’s largest school district, including deploying millions of devices in less than a week.” The DOE did not deploy millions of devices in less than a week (right now they are busy working to put 300,000 loaner, internet-enabled iPads into the hands of NYC students by month’s end). That blatant falsehood set a dubious tone for what would follow. In his speech, Chancellor Carranza claimed the DOEs Remote Learning Plan resolves a decades-long problem: bridging the digital divide. To those of us on the frontlines, that couldn’t be further from reality. Incredibly, the Chancellor made these remarks:  

Times of crisis are times of opportunity for us. We have seen that the coronavirus has laid bare many of the inequities that existed in our communities. We’re seeing it in the public health realm right now with the disproportionate impact it’s having in certain communities but we’ve also seen it in the equity and equitable access to technology and resources for many of our students and many of our organizations and communities. So, never waste a crisis. Let’s take advantage of the opportunities that this presents to actually re-imagine and re-calibrate, if you will, those opportunities for students and those opportunities for those that we serve in a very very honest and transparent way. You know, we’ve been talking about bridging the digital divide as long as I’ve been an educator, since my 32nd year as an educator. We always talked about it. We actually have the opportunity right now to actually do something about it in a very, very, I think, powerful way. 

It is delusional to suggest that the DOE’s iPad loaner program actually mitigates inequality in this moment. Indeed, the digital divide is one, among many, divides that have made the COVID-19 crisis exceptionally devastating for low wage earners, immigrant communities and communities of color. The pre-existing social conditions far too many students endure such as unstable housing, food insecurity, their parents’ income inequality and inadequate healthcare have intensified by degrees of magnitude that are difficult to stomach because of COVID-19. 

There’s a difference between being a family or individual with sufficient wealth to purchase devices, software and apps of your choosing, to enjoy them in ways of your choosing and with the privacy measures of your choosing versus the DOE way. The iPads issued by the DOE require parents to sign an agreement to return the device – it’s the DOE’s property – not theirs. DOE iPads do not have an app store. Students and parents are denied the freedom to download any apps, free or otherwise, of their choosing for school and study. They are restricted to using the apps chosen by the DOE. Educators would love it if their students could download their favorite educational apps but they cannot. Student email accounts are needed to access apps, therefore the data generated by their usage is property of the software developers and DOE. Many rightly fear their data may be used against them. What time did you log in and how much time did you spend? How well or how poorly did you score? Where did you take your device? Feeling surveilled yet?

IPads have great potential for increasing student access to information, learning opportunities and methods of reading and writing accessible for students with disabilities of all kinds. It’s a special form of cruelty to offer this technology while imposing terms that actually deny agency, autonomy, dignity and the right to privacy. Did they mention each device comes equipped with a tracking device? Technology can be used as a tool of oppression or a tool of liberation. Or, as is the case with the DOE iPads, tools of both. Families unable to purchase their own devices are forced to accept an insulting level of surveillance and control in order to reap any possible benefits. It simply isn’t fair. 

Some legislators are balking at the cost of the program (a whopping $269M) and questioning why cheaper products or products with keyboards (i.e. laptops) were not purchased instead. This is the wrong line of questioning. First of all, our students are worth the price of top of the line products. And the fact is, people have individual preferences when it comes to touch screen typing, keyboarding, voice typing, and the size, weight and durability of a device. Families with means can afford to purchase the device that is right for their child. The NYCDOE could have considered offering parents a menu of options to choose from. Why didn’t they do that?

The Department of Education walks a fine line between legitimacy and illegitimacy in the eyes of New Yorkers who fund the costly enterprise and have a reasonable expectation of it functioning well. Because of the pandemic and the need to close schools while the school year is in session, remote learning poses an obvious solution. Yet, the way in which the Remote Learning Plan was rolled out betrays its stated objectives: to keep school in session while school buildings can be closed for the safety and wellbeing of students and school staff. When Chancellor Carranza said, “Never waste a crisis,” to a digital meeting of his peers and edtech insiders, what could he possibly have meant? Did he mean never waste the chance to save lives? No, because NYCDOE employees were forced into unsafe buildings to prepare Google Classrooms (an activity that could’ve been done from the safety of one’s home) after schools had been deemed unsafe for children. Furthermore, positive cases of COVID-19 in school communities were suppressed. COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 82 NYCDOE employees according to official figures. Many believe that number is considerably higher. Did the Chancellor mean never waste the chance to help students and families? No, because students and families are overwhelmed by the amount of work being assigned, the compliance measures in effect and the fear of failing as grades continue to be calculated. Then what? 

Chancellor Carranza, under the cover of COVID-19 fear and panic, implemented sweeping system changes that hold the potential power to justify massive layoffs and slash program funding. By migrating academic instruction, professional development and therapy for students in Special Education to digital platforms without oversight policies properly vetted by teacher, student and parent stakeholders, we can only imagine how public education may suffer. The Chancellor along with technocrats and edtech industry bosses may describe this pandemic as an “opportunity” but many fear their intentions are opportunistic. Given how they put our entire city at risk by failing to close schools in a timely manner and acting with transparency around reported COVID-19 cases, we are wise to judge their smiling faces and glib claims to be all about equity as stunts to gaslight us. We cannot be fooled and we cannot let them define justice for us. 

To be clear, the digital divide flows from the wealth divide, and it can never be bridged by flooding the streets with iPads. The income gap, as the fundamental source of the digital divide along with the disproportionate share of pain, grief and suffering so many feel during this pandemic, must be bridged with a redistribution of wealth. Period. 

We must reform the tax code in Albany so the many millionaires and billionaires who are currently taxed at a lower rate than the bulk of New Yorkers pay their fair share. Beyond that, New York City can take these measures to ensure its Remote Learning Plan is actually equitable and does not lead to a degradation of public education in the long run:

  • Adopt demands made by Girls For Gender Equity and give, not loan, internet-enabled devices like iPads to families and to allow families full access to apps and software at their own discretion. 
  • Guarantee a replacement device for all students as needed. Devices are made to break. Moreover, they are the contemporary era’s marble notebook. Every child needs one or more. 
  • Offer families to choose from a menu of devices with different features including touchscreen and keyboard options. 
  • Adopt demands made by Sistas and Brothas United to issue passing grades to all students for all subjects.
  • Adopt the Mental Health Continuum proposed by Advocates for Children and 40 other organizations to effectively support students in emotional crises without the intervention of law enforcement.  
  • Adopt demands for a community task force to address COVID-19 concerns and implement policies and programs that center compassion and equity in remote learning. 
  • Restore the Summer Youth Employment program.

So many groups and organizations are working tirelessly to define what education justice means through democratic, grassroots initiatives. It behooves the NYCDOE to take heed.  

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