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Why Equitable Access to Technology Now Means a Better Colorado Workforce Later

Co-Authored By: Gina Nocera, Vice President, Community Impact & Liane Morrison, Director of United for Schools at Mile High United Way
 
Let’s be honest. Kids are struggling during this pandemic. They’re struggling to stay engaged with their schoolwork. They’re struggling to adjust to an isolating school environment that doesn’t allow for close personal connection with teachers and classmates.
 
Remote and hybrid learning has laid bare the inequities in our education system as the pandemic exacerbated those inequities and shined a bright light on the digital divide. Mile High United Way’s United for Schools (UFS) program has been helping families and students overcome the digital divide since the onset of the pandemic and our work continues to be relevant in 2021.
 
Children who have access to computers and WiFi, with parents who have the time and are tech savvy to support their online learning, have generally adapted. Although not ideal learning models, these children have generally managed to engage with their teachers and schools. What about the children and families who didn’t have a laptop or found WiFi too expensive or unreliable? What about the parents who still need to get up every day and go to their workplace, and can’t be home to support remote and hybrid learning? More recently, most schools now offer “in-person” learning but up to 40% of families in Metro Denver school districts are opting to continue with remote learning. These families are choosing remote learning, despite those technology barriers, due to many reasons: they are scared to send their children back to school due to the multi-generational nature of their households and the increased COVID risk to elderly family members, or they can’t afford for the sole wage-earner in the household to become sick with COVID, so opt to restrict ventures outside the home.
 
Last spring, UFS created a Technology Fund focused on three challenges parents and children face during remote and hybrid learning: 1) access to high-quality laptops, 2) WiFi access, and 3) technology training for parents so they can engage with their children’s online learning. Our focus has been on delivering these tech essentials to families within our seven partnering elementary schools across three school districts in Metro Denver.
 
UFS’s objective is to ensure that children are present at school, ready and able to learn. During the pandemic, that translates into students not just “present” but also engaged in their remote learning. It also includes an opportunity for parents to support and participate in their student’s learning. How do we implement this and level the playing field for our families?
 
Providing laptops and WiFi is a start, but it isn’t enough. So UFS created Parent Technology Training to support parents — building their computer skills so they can support their children. The training includes easy-to-understand videos on computer and internet basics offered in English and Spanish, and one-on-one tutoring to ensure the parents master the video topics. Furthermore, we are working to translate these trainings into Pashto to better serve the parents in our neighborhoods. Assessments are completed at the beginning and end of the trainings. Now, parents have the skills to help their students with online learning, navigate through a technology glitch and communicate with their teachers. In the 21st century of teaching and learning, these are necessary, essential skills for all parents.
 
“Knowing how to navigate [the internet] and understand the classroom application helps me to understand the goals the teachers set for my children.”
– Parent, Thornton; December 2020
 
Feedback from post-training assessments indicate that parents learn how to connect virtually and improve their existing knowledge of connecting virtually with their children’s classmates and teachers through Zoom, Google Meets, Schoology and other online learning platforms. After completing the training, they can participate in parent-teacher conferences, communicate with teachers and help their children when they have technology ‘connection’ issues. The most frequent suggestion from these parents is the importance in expanding the number of parents in their communities who would gain from the training. One side benefit of the training has been that a few parents who have completed it have become paid tutors themselves – thus, helping parents in their own communities while earning income and developing new work skills.
 
Parent Technology Trainings can be replicated since the videos are publicly available on YouTube.
• English: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOr558p4fWnrz7VGavAzZSvftrYfXS86b
• Spanish: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOr558p4fWnr8uQYg_2tGSrZeCq3rABtF
 
Mile High United Way welcomes educators, school districts and community organizations to use the videos and replicate the trainings, and we will walk anyone through the components. One aspect that cannot be emphasized enough is the role of the UFS Community Advocates who are the first connection point to the parents, a touchpoint for the parents midway through the training, and remain connected with the parents after the training is completed. Our strategy is to increase parents’ comfort using technology and then strengthen their role as a partner in their students’ education.
 
As a corporate partner of Mile High United Way, Ernst & Young (EY) is joining us to provide laptops, WiFi access, mentors and hands-on support to metro Denver students and families. Recognizing that the world has moved more online since the pandemic, EY is not only fundraising internally, it’s reaching out to its corporate network to expand the bridge across the digital divide.
 
“These are our future workers. In our region, they come disproportionately from the Black and Latino population. If our fellow Coloradans can’t get online, the damage to their prospects and to our community as a whole could be long-lasting. The need is urgent.” – Mark Belfance, EY Partner & Mile High United Way board member
 
The impact of the digital divide will continue long after the pandemic ends. The pandemic exposed the depth of the divide but we have an opportunity to fundamentally narrow that chasm so all families can engage in their children’s learning, communicate with their children’s schools and teachers, and know they are a vital part of their children’s education.
 

How to Get Involved

 
If you would like to get involved in helping Mile High United Way bridge the digital divide, please consider submitting training videos as a company, giving to the technology fund, or reaching out to our team to pursue a broader partnership on this issue. To learn more about partnership opportunities, contact Haley Shilts at haley.shilts@unitedwaydenver.org.