Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
#3243 minutes

Classes may have begun, but the start of this school year is unlike any other. With a virus that has forced so many schools to keep their doors closed, millions of students are in online classes at home. We wanted to hear how women who are leading school systems are navigating these days and get their thoughts on how as a nation we can improve digital education. In Part One of this special two-part conversation, listeners will meet five Superintendents from across the country: Dr. Kristi Wilson from Arizona, Dr. Ann Levett from Georgia, Krestin Bahr and Dr. Susan Enfield from Washington, and Heidi Sipe from Oregon. You’ll hear how they prepared for this new school year, what challenges they face, and how they are working to develop new ideas to keep their communities learning during this difficult time.

Transcript: 

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations. My name is Jessica Rosenworcel and I'm a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

And this is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology innovation and media industries. You get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds and what they think is the next big thing.

And I'm really excited about this episode because this is not a normal episode of broadband conversations. Because normally I get to talk to one woman who is doing something remarkable in science or technology.

And today I have the honor of speaking with five amazing women who are school superintendents from districts all across the country. And they're here today to talk about technology and the virtual classroom.

This is such a good time to do it because we are in a public health crisis that has reshaped so much in our daily lives. From how we work to how we seek health care to how we connect with others.

But for so many families, and my own included, one of the biggest shifts has been in education and how our children learn. Because as this virus swept through our communities so many schools closed their doors and moved classrooms online.

And while this rush to remote learning protected the health of students, teachers and staff, it left too many students who lack internet at home without an option to learn. This homework gap was of course here before this virus, but its impact has only grown during this pandemic.

And now, school administrators like my guests today, and policy makers, have to figure out how we can get every child online so no student is left behind in the new school year.

So, I'll introduce each of my guests and let them say a little bit more about their districts and their backgrounds. But let me go ahead and quickly introduce them.

We have Dr. Kristi Wilson from Arizona, Dr. Ann Levett from Georgia, Krestin Bahr from Washington State, Heidi Sipe from Oregon and Dr. Susan Enfield from Washington State. Hello to everyone, I'm so glad you're here today.

Now, I just want to say from the get go, I hope you all are doing well and that your families and your communities are safe and sound during this crisis. But let's get started by sharing a little bit about yourselves, where you're from the district that you serve in and how you got to where you are today.

So, Kristi, you just took over the helm of a national association that works with school superintendents and boy, what timing. Because when you did it probably no one told you what 2020 would look like.

And we use the word unprecedented all the time, but really, there is so much about education in this time that is truly unprecedented. So, tell me a little bit about yourself, how you're navigating this time and how you got to where you are.

DR. WILSON: Oh, Jessica, thank you so much for this opportunity to be with you and the panelists, it's my absolute honor and a privilege to be here with you today.

I'm from Buckeye Elementary School District, just a little west of Phoenix, Arizona. I have been serving as superintendent there going on my eighth year. And as I said, it's an absolute privilege and honor to serve as a superintendent.

Like you said, who knew that I would be faced at the helm during a pandemic. And in a district of my size, we serve about 6,000 students. We're a K8 district.

And are free and reduced lunch count is around 80 to 85 percent. So we have experience with a lot of challenges in the district that serves a majority minor district.

We have a lot of experience with just families and students and staff that are faced with all kinds of food insecurity. And we'll be talking a little bit later, I'm sure, about some of those challenges.

And none the less, I think that opportunities that have presented itself during the pandemic have included all kinds of things that we've been doing with technology that probably would have taken us lots of years to uncover and standup I suppose in public education.

So, I'm excited about that. That's been a lot of hard work and sweat and tears, but things that we, like I said, probably would have taken a long time to do.

So, I'm happy to be here and looking forward to the conversation with the panelists and yourself.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: All right. Well, let's move on to Ann from Georgia. If you could tell us a little bit about your district, what it looks like during this crisis and also how you got to where you are today.

DR. LEVETT: Well, thank you. Good morning. And I'm happy to be here with you and with my colleagues who are doing a tremendous job during this time.

I am very proud to hail from Savannah, Georgia. Our school district is a city county district, Savannah-Chatham County and we currently serve about 37, a little over 37,000 students.

It is a largely district of students of color. And we have really, I think, done fairly well during this time of crisis.

We're in Georgia of course, which this week ranks as the second highest state for COVID cases. And so of course we've been dealing with that since the onset of the pandemic.

We opened earlier than I think most people thought we should. But nonetheless I think the schools have demonstrated resilience.

We actually shutdown April 1st and we launched a week ago virtual mode only. We were starting to plan for face-to-face social distance, but it didn't work because the numbers continued to rise.

I think we've gotten off to a little bit of a bumpy start, but nonetheless pretty good for 37,000 plus 5,600 employees. I think in a community of 43,000 or so I think we've done well.

We started our journey, actually last September, with trying to get to one-to-one across the district. Actually, September 9th, which is right after a hurricane.

We've had hurricanes for the past four seasons. So our intent was to get to face-to-face. And using public dollars to try to do that.

Well, of course, that plan has accelerated as you might think. And we are now almost to that point. In fact, by mid-September we should be one-to-one totally in the district. Very excited about that.

Developed a learning management system, procured a learning management system. And we're all learning at this time. But I think we've done fairly well right now working on hotspot internet services and other things.

I got here, I started here in Savannah as a teacher. As a speech and language pathologist. And became an administrator and then moved away.

Was gone for about 18 years in other districts, in other states. And then ended up Yale University School of Medicine, in school reform and community development and then returned to Savannah in 2013 for family reasons.

But I'm really excited to be back in my home state and in my home city where I'm able to make a difference. And I just thank you for the opportunity to talk a little bit about what we've been dealing with over the past several months.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Wow, what a great story of homecoming and service, I like it.

All right, Krestin, can you tell us a little bit about your district in Washington State and how you got to where you are today?

MS. BAHR: Yes. Good morning. Thank you so much for having us. My name is Krestin Bahr and I am starting my eight year in my journey of being the superintendent of Eatonville School District.

We are a district of 2,000. And really a small-town rural Washington State. We actually border, part of our district is all of Mount Rainier National Park.

And so, it's a very interesting district. It's a small-town. Although it's very focused on being innovative.

So, I started my journey eight years ago. I started in Tacoma, Washington and spent 28 years, both as a science teacher, biology teacher in high school in an urban, large comprehensive high school. And middle school, was the principle.

And then had the opportunity to think about being a superintendent. And I was very, very focused on looking at a smaller system in order to make significant change.

So the board and I have been working over the last eight years. Our school district is an innovative school district. It was designated as a Google reference district.

All of our elementary schools are STEM Lighthouse Schools for OSPI and Green Schools. And we've really done a lot of work around project based learning and outdoor learning. Our environment lends itself to that for sure.

So when we closed down in March we thought, I mean, I think all of the superintendents would agree, we had no idea what that was going to look like. But we felt like we were a little bit more advanced.

And what we learned is that we really didn't have the, we did not have a technology levy. We have, it's very hard to pass anything that's above and beyond our maintenance and operations levy.

People are very frugal in this area. They have high expectations, so we were not one-to-one.

So we have been able to, over the last couple of months, really focus on what we knew well in a remote setting. And we have braided some funding in order to be able to become one-to-one.

So we are kicking off next week with devices for all of our students, preschool all the way up to 12th grade. And that seems like a huge goal, much like my previous superintendent said. You know, we're doing things at such a fast rate with really the concept of, that we have never done this before.

And as we look at health and safety, we will also be starting a hundred percent remote. And this community really wants face-to-face. So that tension is real.

And we've been working very closely with our health department to navigate that. So thank you.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Well, thank you. It's interesting to hear from someone from a more rural location, but also, it's that same story that this virus is not just a crisis, it's a real accelerant for digital technology and education. And seeing how everyone navigates is interesting. And it's important to share.

So, next let's talk to Heidi from Oregon.

MS. SIPE: Good morning. I'm honored to be speaking with you from Umatilla, Oregon. We serve 1,450 students in rural Northeast Oregon.

We serve a wonderfully diverse community. Seventy-two percent of our students are students of color.

We have the second highest percentage of English Language learners in Oregon. And a hundred percent of our kids eat meals at school each day.

Like Ann, I started as a teacher in our district and originally believed I'd stay here for three years, but this is my 21st year here and my 14th year as superintendent. So apparently my initial assumptions were incorrect.

I love working in a district this size. I love the challenge of wearing so many hats and still getting to work with students.

I'm one of the coaches of our high school robotics team and I have many assistant superintendents, all of whom are students. And the small-town connectivity of our community has really shown through and got us through this spring.

We found that roughly 30 percent of our students needed internet at home. And while we had built up our devices, we were ready for one-to-one there, our real challenge came in getting internet to students.

But thankfully we reached out to friends and neighbors throughout town and we added point-to-point systems from our school to those various addresses around town to provide neighborhood connectivity for students. And that really helped us.

Moving into fall we were excited. We had a really strong hybrid model and we were going to be able to serve every student, every day onsite in some really creative ways, and we were excited about it. And then at the end of July we found out we had to go online only for health reasons.

And while I fully support it, I'm still in a bit of mourning because I really worry about our kids that are home.

However, we are moving forward with our only system and I'm excited to give it a go. This is going to be the year we make history and we're excited about it.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I like that optimism. So let's finish with Susan, also from Washington State. Tell us about your district and how you got to where you are today.

DR. ENFIELD: Great. Good morning, everybody, so happy to be here. I am Susan Enfield. I am starting my ninth year serving as the proud superintendent for Highline Public Schools.

We are a richly diverse school system located in Burien, Washington, just outside Seattle. So, when you choose to get on an airplane again and you fly into beautiful Seattle, Washington and you land in SeaTac International Airport you are landing in my district. Our district surrounds the airport.

And as I said, we are richly diverse. We describe our students in Highline as brilliant, beautiful and brimming with promise. But sadly, they are not all connected to internet. They do not all have broadband.

And I believe that in this day and age that is just criminal. To put a word on it. Especially in the shadow of all the companies that we have in the Seattle region.

And so we are really fighting to make sure that in this time of distance learning, because like my colleagues across the country, many of them, we are beginning the school year in full distance learning. Our students will be learning from home.

We know that they won't be able to go to school unless they have a reliable broadband access from home. So we're fighting mightily for that.

I was very fortunate to have that growing up. Well, not when I was really little because I'm old --

(Laughter.)

DR. ENFIELD: Now I'm really thinking on it, I'm really old. But I actually began my career as a high school English ELL and journalism teacher.

And never for once thought that I would become a superintendent because really, who inspires to be a superintendent. I'm sure my colleagues who are on this call would say, I don't think we dreamed as little girls growing up one day we'd be a superintendent.

But was at a crossroads in my career and saw an ad in Ed Week magazine for the Harvard Urban Superintendent's Program. And my father encouraged me to apply. And I did.

And the rest is history. So that put me on the path to the superintendency. And I have to say that I am incredibly grateful that my professional path has gone in this direction. It really is an honor to serve as a superintendent.

And as I have said many times over the last several months, I would prefer not to have to go through a global pandemic, but if I do, Highline is the place I want to do it. We have a remarkable community. We have amazing staff, families and students.

And while the challenge is facing us or many, we are stepping up and doing what needs to be done. And in our case, that means making sure that every child is connected.

Because this is not just about internet connection it's about every child being connected to their teacher, their peers, their school community. And that is more important than ever before.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Wow, we have, I think, a hundred years of classroom and leadership education experience sitting here in this conservation. And that is incredible.

And what an incredible time to have that history because you got to bring it to this moment, which is so unlike what has happened in learning before.

And I started by mentioning, Kristi, that you took over the helm of this National Association of Superintendents, and I'm wondering at this moment if you could start by telling us a little bit about the biggest challenges and opportunities you're seeing in that role and as you talk to your peer superintendents from across the country.

DR. WILSON: Absolutely. And I should probably mention too a little bit about my background. I failed to say that.

I came from a special education background, so I taught in that field. So, adding to the lady, the panelist expertise, we have that too. And also, just the administration things as well.

There's a couple of things I'd like to add to this. And one of the main, the technology issues that we face, the digital divide and the homeless, and the buzzwords I think are really have been blown wide open with COVID.

And we're all working really hard to use our bond dollars. And our district, we aren't quite one-to-one yet, but we're fortunate enough to have passed the bonds that is one-to-one.

Who have any student that needs a device is able to get a device. So, that's really helpful. We're working on all kinds of ways to make sure that they have access at home.

I think one of the, I get to opportunities in a second but one of the things that keeps me up at night is the hunger issue. And the food insecurity.

Because I think even if you solve for technology we, at least in our district, we have quite a homeless issue and poverty issue. So, we have this saying in our senior staff meetings, and it's kind of a, even if you launch laptops out into the ethos, right, you still have this issue with folks that have to have comfort with using technology, and also, you're living in a, think about it, if you're living in a car, you don't have access to just the experience, I would say, of getting used to how you use the technology.

This is a huge issue for, at least in our district, is getting use to this comfort level. So, I think the food insecurity issue coupled with the fact that you have to learn how to use the technology is a huge --

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: So, do you see those same things nationwide when you talk to others?

DR. WILSON: Absolutely.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I mean, because I can see the relationship between the free and reduced lunch program, food insecurity, support from E-Rate to those schools and then recognizing taking those students out of those schools creates all kind of ruptures in the continuation of their lives.

DR. WILSON: Well, absolutely. And I think across the nation, what we're hearing from other superintendents is the fact that nearly 12 million students are unable to engage in remote learning because they lack internet access. If you couple that with food insecurity or homeless issues, that's why we are seeing some of the advocacy from AASA.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I mean, without the connectivity there is no school. It's so fundamental.

DR. WILSON: Right.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I mean, there is so many people that used to think about broadband as being of sort nice to have. They don't realize that right now it is absolutely need to have. There is no classroom without it in remote learning, right?

DR. WILSON: I think that's why we hear superintendents that ask for kind of info from others on the call. I think Steve Webb has talked about it being a utility, a necessity.

So, the reasoning I'm bringing into the food insecurity is, we've been very innovative. I know several of us have been innovative in trying to park our buses that are equipped with wi-fi in neighborhoods so kids can get, launch onto it and have access.

I think the food issues and insecurity issues, I've heard some kind of info that others talk about, are key to this. Because again, the comfort level of being able to access it, we have to solve the accessibility issue, the device issue, but also the poverty issue and the health. It's kind of a triple whammy.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes. Absolutely. These things are related.

And the problems you're describing too, you see them in urban American and rural America. It's not just one slice of the country.

DR. WILSON: Right.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: So, let me go to Ann next because in doing some research before you joined, we saw this piece you wrote in the Savannah morning news about how to think about a new normal for schools.

And I just thought this was so spot on. You wrote, "schools operate as a human enterprise where practices like group work, in-person instruction, meals in the cafeteria, assemblies, science labs, hugs, team sports and sharing are the norm.

There are places where loud laughter and playing with friends are the observable signs of children growing up. And beyond academic, schools provide social support for children and reliable childcare without which many parents could not work."

I just thought that was so beautifully put. I mean, it was such a reminder of how unusual this time is for parents, for students, for teachers, for staff.

So, I'd love it if you could share a bit more about how you've been engaging with your community to prepare for this school year. And we'll follow-up with others and ask a little bit more about the same.

And what role technology plays in that and how you've been even using technology yourself to communicate with the community and your students and your staff. So, Ann, if you could get us started. I just love what you wrote so much.

DR. LEVETT: Sure. Thank you so much. And I thank my English teacher for helping me with developing this --

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Oh my gosh.

DR. LEVETT: -- critical skills. You know, I'm a very, I'm out in the community a lot so I'm used to meeting with people and talking with them and community meetings, like all of us.

But in a community as large as mine, it just requires that you are in all seven municipalities. So what I found was writing, which is my passion, my love, is probably what people don't really like to do. They don't like to read it, but sometimes I think it's important for us to communicate.

So I had a multi-pronged effort. So I wrote the editorials, I participated in podcasts. I communicated regularly by email with staff and students to call out.

But I found it really important to give people short messages, but messages from my heart. So that they would know I was speaking with them.

Not as a bureaucrat or a leader of a huge organization, but a person who was deeply connected to the work and to the persons who served. And that they needed to know that we were steady and calm and were not, were all learning in this time period.

So emails regularly. Even after school was out, still saying to staff, we're looking at things we're studying, I want you to know we're still thinking about you and still thinking about next steps.

I started doing free talk Friday which was, I would just have a casual conversation with the public about where we were. And then openly admitting we didn't know all the answers. We're still learning, still investigating.

And we had a taskforce of about 135 people that we engaged to get some feedback on how we should approach reopening. And then of course, just communicating regularly with all segments of the community.

Not just the major news organ, which is where you found that letter. But communicating in all aspects of the community, to me, was really important.

And when we could support activities that were missing from our typical startup, like for the year, we had curbside celebrations, curbside distributions, drive up movie theater kind of orientation sessions, just so people would still see us as being connected.

Call outs to families, call outs to kids. Just talking with people I think was really important.

Use technology a lot. Social media. As my colleagues here, I see them online, they see me online. I borrow ideas from them, and hopefully they for me.

But I think every way, podcasts, site visits, all in an appropriate manner, but lots of technology. Because that's what people use.

Not depending on news stations, but knowing that people plug into Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. They plug into that so why not take advantage of it to get the message out.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I love how you're using every form you can to connect. I mean, I remember when I was in school and there was usually some xeroxed copied of the weekly notes from the school that got all crumpled in my backpack and on a good day made it home to the kitchen table.

But the infinite array of technology platforms you're using to try to reach out and make sure everyone stays connected, that's extremely neat and impressive and it's great to know that schools are thinking like that right now.

Let me see if I can actually go to Krestin next because here is something I really want to talk about. And I know that many districts, in advance of this school year, did things like held surveys or tried to reach out to students to, and teachers and families to try to figure out what were their concerns.

And one of those issues, of course, is connectivity, device availability, trying to figure out which families fall into the homework gap and whether those families were willing to acknowledge that their internet connections were not reliable or consistent and what that would mean for their students.

So, I know that you did a survey and I'm wondering if there was anything in that survey that surprised you, were there things you heard that you hadn't considered?

And maybe we'll follow-up with others and find out if they did similar surveys too to find out about the state of connectivity and other issues in student homes.

MS. BAHR: Right. Thank you for asking that. This question, the survey, you know, I love that you asked the question about what surprised me because I think that most of us went into the spring closure with really a lot of uncertainty. You know, not quite knowing.

I think when we first went out we thought that we would go out for maybe five weeks, that we would be back. We ended up going two days after our governor had closed. And my teachers put together packets.

So we had one extra day that other districts did not have. We kind of took that gamble.

And so when we closed, and when we released the survey, we really didn't know that we were going to be closed for the entire time. And none of us could have imagined that we would be opening up next week in a remote setting as well.

So, I think that uncertainty, when you look at that survey. But there were a couple of things that jumped out at me, and us, when we were looking.

We knew that there were 30 percent of our school district parents that did not have reliable connectivity. And one thing about our district, we are, as I said, really close to the national park. And we have hills and lots of trees, right. We have all the valleys that do not --

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Right. It's beautiful but it's very cruel for propagation --

MS. BAHR: Right.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: -- of certain types of airwaves.

MS. BAHR: Absolutely.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: And it's hard to build fiber there. Absolutely, I understand.

MS. BAHR: There is no fiber, right.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: No.

MS. BAHR: So that, I don't know that we really understood that. We felt really good about our Google reference district and our internal networking, but we didn't really realize that 30 percent of our families really struggled.

And in fact, I had a conversation last week with a professional family who lives out on a farm and they are paying $175 a month for satellite connectivity for their two children and then the one husband in order for them to be connected.

And that is just something that's not going to happen for most of our families to be able to have that additional cost. And so, I think that we were very surprised about that.

The other part that I think I was most surprised about goes back to the food insecurity. When we had food delivery there were families that really came out both for the food but the connection.

It was more important for them to be connected to their teachers, so we ended up having our staff come during that time. We had our counselors come so that when they would come and pick up food. And then we had our counselors and a variety of different staff deliver food to some of our isolated and rural areas.

And just that connection, because we are, we have many families that can be very isolated. Especially when they don't have money for gas.

That seemed to be really, really important as we continued on into the summer. And we did not run a summer program simply because our staff that we had doing food service, they were absolutely exhausted because they really were working super hard.

So I think navigating that as we go forward. And the fact that food isn't just nutrition it is food for the soul as well. And it is the ability to connect. And the ability for us to be able to see families and children.

You know, we actually are, 20 percent of the CPS referrals come from schools. And so, if we don't have any eyes on any children ever and no families, that connection really, really is, and many of our families are really struggling right now because they have --

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes. And CPS is Child Protective Services, is that right?

MS. BAHR: That is correct.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: But tell me another thing, you mentioned 30 percent of your households knowing in a sort of conclusive way that they were not connected. I'm wondering how you knew that and what portion of that, to the extent you have a feeling, is that because they live beyond where broadband infrastructure is and what portion of it is it strictly about affordability, even if service is available the household can't afford it?

MS. BAHR: I do believe that it's both.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Right.

MS. BAHR: Because there are many families that are middle income to upper SES that they cannot physically get reliable network. In fact, at my own house, if you and I were speaking, I'd have to walk outside in a certain place so that my cell phone works.

And so, it is a reality of the area. And then you layer that one with affordability factor. So it's connectability and affordability.

And it really puts our zip code in a place where we have to be thinking about allowing students to come in, allowing access to our buildings, outside, inside. And so that really has been the push for face-to-face in some manner. Especially in our high school.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Right.

MS. BAHR: Things that our high school students, many of them are using their cell phones for writing papers. And that's just not, when we can give them a device but then they can't access it, it's really a travesty.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: I agree. So, has anyone else done that kind of survey of their district or their families?

Are you finding that it's as high as 30 percent in your district or perhaps even higher students who can't get reliable internet access during this period at home?

DR. ENFIELD: Yes. We've done similar surveys and we've estimated that of our roughly 18,000 students, pre-k through 12, at least a couple thousand of those don't have reliable broadband access from home. And we're working hard to change that, but yes.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes. Anyone else has done a survey like that or is it just hard to do that kind of survey and know, conclusively, which households are connected and which are not?

DR. LEVETT: This is Ann, and we have done similar surveys. And we're finding changing access to broadband.

Some of the families who have, who can connect with internet services may not be able to afford them. So they may have cell phone service and they're able to connect in that way.

But in terms of stable service for multiple children in the household, that may not be the case. And so that percentage has changed for us over time, but we have come up with some other ways for students to use the technology without the internet service.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes. The stability of it is so important, especially as the economy has suffered during this crisis and job losses are real in so many places across the country.

Someone else was just talking.

DR. WILSON: I'm sorry, Jessica. The only thing I would add is to piggyback on what Ann was just saying is, the multi-families in our homes both have group homes. We have families that have upwards to five, six, seven children in them.

And to your point, if we have about ten percent that we've had assessed that have either just very difficulty with the connectivity or no connectivity at all. But when we surveyed and we've, we actually had counselors and outreach services to go into their homes just to try to assess how difficult is this problem, it's really, really difficult to even get a real true, true definition of how far from this.

But when you have families that have multiple devices and multiple families, multiple children, Ann, like to get back to your point, mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, sometimes multiple families in one small home all trying to get on devices, you can just have that picture in your mind, it's very difficult.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Yes. That image just stings. Like, imagine a single phone with a data cap on it that's being used by parents, children, anyone else who lives in the house, for school, for work, for emergency health care, for everything --

DR. WILSON: Yes.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: -- it is --

DR. WILSON: The group homes --

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Right.

DR. WILSON: We actually, like I said, had outreach go in to really assess what we're dealing with.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Okay, so, Susan, let's build on this and talk because I think you know, one of the things I talk a lot about is the homework gap and the students, the need for students to have internet at home. I mean, even before this pandemic because so many teachers assign homework that requires internet access.

And here we are during this crisis and students have synchronous and asynchronous class. They got to get to school but they can't reach that digital classroom, it's locked to them if they don't have internet access.

And I know that you described some concerns about going all remote early on. And the ability to do digital learning at scale in your district because, as you said, there are thousands of households where you felt that students in your district did not have reliable internet at home.

So I'd love it if you could share a little bit more about that. Especially acknowledging, as you said, that you live in the shadows of one of our nation's biggest technology corridors just outside of Seattle.

DR. ENFIELD: Well, I am grateful for advocacy around the homework gap. I think though, as we now know, that's expanded. It's now an access gap.

And I think we've talked about this in this conversation today. Our students simply will not be able to go to school to connect with their teacher, their peers, without reliable home internet in the coming months.

And so, yes, this has been a concern of mine since this began. And I think that those of us in leadership positions right now have an absolute responsibility to the advocates. Local advocates for our children and for all that they need.

And I remember, I think it was June actually, and it was a Saturday, and I was just, you know, just the reality of what our children were facing. Or rather, what our children would be losing without having reliable home broadband access just really hit me.

And Highline is a member of the digital promise lead to innovative schools and I reached out to some of my superintendent colleagues and said, we need to do something about this. And we created the #connectkidsnow. We've been using since then because it's long overdue for us to connect kids now.

But that simply is what has to happen. And we've worked incredibly hard in Highline. And I think what this pandemic has done is it has daylighted many of the inequities that we always knew were there. But I think they've been just laid there for people who didn't seen them before to see very clearly.

And it's important that we do something about that. And I am very critical of those that I feel are not doing what they should be doing in their leadership roles to make a change here. But I also own my part of that.

And one of the things that I've also been very vocal about is, we just talked about surveying our families about who didn't have internet access. You know, we always knew that was the case. We knew that before this happened.

And I am ashamed of myself that even though I knew that I didn't do anything about it before this happened. Well, now we have to do something about it.

And so, I just think that if ever there was a moment and a moral imperative, which I think we have in this moment, to make sure that all children, regardless of zip code, can access their education. This is it.

And I'm grateful to be in a community and work with a team in Highline. We have an extraordinary team of educators who are just beyond dedicated.

Their commitment to our children is something that is deep in their bones. This is who we are.

And we have a promise in Highline, and Krestin knows this well, she's probably tired of hearing about it, but we have a promise in Highline to know every student by name, strength and need so they graduate prepared for the future they choose.

We will not be able to deliver on that promise if we cannot say that every child is connected. And so we have been doing everything we can.

Partnering with cities. Unfortunately, the City of Burien is going to use some of its CARES dollars to help connect families.

We've obviously been providing thousands of hotspots. Like, these are band-aids, we need a national solution through E-Rate to really make this something that effects all districts.

And I will say this, Highline is a remarkable community and our Highline Schools foundation, seeing this need, has started a fund-raising campaign where anyone in the community can sponsor a family for $140. $140 will provide a family with internet access for the upcoming school year.

And while I am incredibly grateful, and I think to date we've raised, I think close to maybe $30,000 to help with that, and I'm grateful for that. But it shouldn't have to happen.

That is the modern-day equivalent of a big sale. To provide something that our children should have access to and are entitled to as part of our public education system.

And so, what I'd love for us to do is to just all raise our voices and advocate so that no child remains disconnected from his or her classroom and teacher and peers because more than ever, that connection is so important because we are all more isolated than we would like to be right now.

And I think if we put ourselves in the tiny shoes of a 7 year old or a 10 year old, or frankly even a 17 year old, the isolation that they must be feeling, especially if they can't connect virtually, is, it hurts your heart.

And what hurts your heart more is to know that we can do something about it and we're not. As a nation we're not. And I hope that in the coming weeks, months, we can.

And I will end on this. We've talked a little bit around the, sort of the intricacies of meeting all of our students and family's basic needs. Broadband access being one, food being another.

We, to date, since we closed our school buildings in March we've provided over 350,000 meals to children in Highline. And I helped distribute some of those meals from our central office during the summer.

And I can't tell you how heartbreaking it was on more than one occasion to have a family say that that was the only food in their home that day. And so, while some of us may think, well, $140, that's not a lot of money, it is when you're trying to put food on the table.

And I think as a nation we should find it unconscionable and unacceptable that a family should have to choose between feeding their child and educating their child. And that is the choice our families are facing right now, and we can do something about it.

COMMISSIONER JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Oh my goodness, I appreciate your morale clarity and your sense of urgency about connecting every child. And also your belief that closing this homework gap needs to be a national priority.

Well, that's it for this episode of Broadband Conversations. But there is a treat that's coming up because this conversation was too good to contain with one episode. We are going to continue the discussion on our episode. I hope you'll join us then.