White Folks Facing Race: Internet Access and Virtual Learning

[This is part of my White Folks Facing Race series, originally written on August 23, 2020 to an email group created for community members in the Washington, DC area.]

Hi Friends!

I hope you’re all healthy and that those of you gearing up for the unique school year aren’t feeling too anxious. This week, I’m going to talk about issues related to internet access and its impact on equal access to information and opportunity as well as challenges related to virtual learning. More resources on many topics and events/action items are below.

Please read Moriah Ballingit’s “‘A national crisis’: As coronavirus forces many schools online this fall, millions of disconnected students are being left behind” (Washington Post, 8/16/20). For this discussion, I’d like to establish a few points:

- I am in favor of reopening schools ONLY when it is safe for everyone to do so, and I strongly encourage everyone to continue following social distancing and other guidelines to ensure that this happens as quickly as possible. Virtual learning is inherently inequitable, but it is the best option we have right now, so we need to ensure that we work for equitable education using every method we have available, adjusting for the realities we face in a pandemic.

- I approach this work not out of pity or white-saviorism, but from a desire to raise awareness so that we can all make more informed choices about how and where we advocate, so we make different assumptions about what Arlington students have access to, and so we can see a bigger picture of the barriers facing our students and our community members so we can work to remove those barriers.

- It is worth working on both short- and long-term goals to address systemic inequities. Action will happen MOST quickly if the people with the most power and privilege in a community advocate for it. Raise your voice, ask questions, and express a sense of collective responsibility for ensuring that everyone in our community has what they need and deserve!

Besides the general equity issues that we all need to be aware of, there are three internet access topics I’m going to cover:
(1) The essential nature of internet access and the current barriers to equitable access;
(2) Barriers to access on APS devices; and,
(3) Privacy and dignity concerns for virtual learning.

Internet Access:
The current internet access options for low-income families in Arlington are inadequate. MiFi devices provided by APS have a time limit for how long they can be used each day. Comcast Internet Essentials has significant barriers for signing up, particularly for families who might be sharing housing arrangements with another family or who have had any issues paying bills in the past. Both of these options are limited in their bandwidth, making live virtual learning inaccessible. Arlington County is working on solutions to this issue, both short- and long-term (such as a community-owned broadband cooperative and broadband authority). There are potentially significant legal barriers to making this happen, particularly from Comcast and Verizon, so our leadership needs to know that this is a community priority with significant support across Arlington. There will also be larger financial expenses for older buildings that are not yet wired and likely other challenges that come up. Please advocate to Arlington County Board members and express support for the need to take the steps necessary to ensure that all of our neighbors have access to essential high-speed internet service in their homes.

APS Device Barriers:
APS devices currently block certain platforms, creating barriers for students who want to access tutoring and other educational tools provided outside of APS’s network. There are several community organizations working hard to provide students with free tutoring and educational support services to supplement the virtual learning they will receive from APS this year. However, there are significant barriers to access because APS devices are heavily locked-down in terms of what programs and platforms they can use. This isn’t so much of an issue if you have an alternate device at home, but as you might imagine, many of our students will only have an APS device and will therefore be prevented from accessing these additional supports. Some organizations are spending precious funds to purchase alternate devices so students can access their content. Please advocate to APS Engage and School Board members and ask about what options there are for addressing these barriers.

Privacy and Dignity:
Please read Christina Caron’s “How to Protect Your Family’s Privacy During Remote Learning” and look particularly at the infographic created by Dr. Torrey Trust about “Using Video to Assess Student Attention in Virtual Class Meetings” to understand some of the equity implications for students engaged in virtual learning (see the “Why Does It Matter?” section in particular). Virtual learning may make many of our students particularly vulnerable to shame, bullying, discomfort, or trauma unless intentional steps are taken to mitigate these situations. There are also significant privacy questions about how virtual learning is different from in-person learning:

- What happens if a teacher observes drug paraphernalia in a student’s home?

- What happens if a student appears visibly intoxicated during a video chat?

- What happens if someone engages in abuse of another person in the background during a video chat?

- Can law enforcement access recorded or live video in a student’s home to search for an undocumented relative?

- What happens if students take screenshots or video of a student’s home circumstances and use them to bully that student?

- What happens if personal information is heard in the background during a video chat and is recorded?

- What information is being collected about a child participating in virtual learning? What control do parents have over what is collected and how it might be used?

Please advocate to APS Engage and School Board members to ask about their policies on privacy during virtual learning and how they are preparing their staff to respond to this new teaching environment in a way that prioritizes respect and dignity for our students and their home circumstances.

LOCAL VOICES:
- Lisa Lednicer writes “Organizing For Change” about local activists Anika and Yolande Kwinana (Arlington Magazine, 8/17/20).
- Lynn Borton interviewed Ryoko Reed for her “Choose to be Curious” series, called “Curiosity & Education Equity, with Ryoko Reed” (8/19/20)

EVENTS/ACTIONS:
- Participatory Defense with Life After Release, September 3 at 6 pm
- Ancestors Watching Vigil, honoring those killed by police in DC, MD, VA, August 27 at 6:30 pm
- Service Never Sleeps is accepting applications for their Fellowship program (apply by October 31)
- Sign up to be an election defender with SURJ (kick-off meeting is August 31)
- Sign up to help with Census Palooza II in Arlington County on August 29
- Volunteer at the polls on Election Day
- Buy a Neighbor School Supplies campaign ends TODAY!
- Missing Middle Housing Research: Ask the Authors Event on September 2
- APS School Board Work Session on School Resource Officers on September 3
- Support the continued effort of the Arlington Community Corps to provide diapers to community members in need (they have moved their wish list from Amazon to Target).
- EmbraceRace is hosting a webinar called “Parents Who Lead on Racial Justice in Their Communities” on August 25
- SURJ is hosting “The Get Together” and episode 1 is called “White Women on Defunding the Police” on August 24
- Sign the petition to support the Native American Voting Rights Act (via the Lakota People’s Law Project)
- The Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition is hosting a “National Call on Coronavirus and Homelessness/Housing” webinar on August 24 and every Monday after that.

RESOURCES:
Voting Rights:
- Derrick Johnson writes “Voter Suppression Is Back, 55 Years After the Voting Rights Act” (Politico, 8/6/20)
- Nancy Abudu writes “The State of Women’s Suffrage — 100 Years Later” (SPLC, 8/18/20)
- Sarah Green Carmichael writes “The Ugly, Unfinished Fight for Suffrage” (Bloomberg, 8/16/20)

Schools/Education:
- Linda Jacobson writes “With Nation Focused on Reopening Schools, Biden’s Choice of Kamala Harris as Running Mate Could Renew Attention on Integration” (The 74, 8/12/20)
- Greg Smedley-Warren writes “TEACHER VOICE: ‘With 85 percent of our students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, a major concern in our district has been a lack of access to technology and the internet’” (Hechinger Report, 8/13/20)

More Resources:
- Jeanne Theoharis writes “Understanding today’s uprisings requires understanding what came before them” (The Washington Post, 8/11/20)
- Virginia State Conference of the NAACP Call to Action on Police Reform, Criminal Justice and Addressing the Effects of COVID-19.
- SPLC’s Sounds Like Hate podcast’s first chapter, part 1 is called “Getting Out
- Vanessa Williams writes “Residential segregation plays a role in coronavirus disparities, study finds” (Washington Post, 8/17/20)
- Kriston Capps writes “One-Third of American Renters Expected to Miss Their August Payment” (CityLab, 8/7/20)
- Candace Howze writes “If You Think Calling Us ‘Angry Black Women’ Is An Insult, You’d Better Think Again” (HuffPost, 8/21/20)
- Jessica Guynn and Brent Schrotenboer write “Why are there still so few black executives in America?” (USA Today, 8/20/20)
- The full content of Arlington County’s Missing Middle Housing Study: Research Compendium is now available.

It’s not about any one of us individually. It’s about all of us, together.

Emily
Listen. Amplify. Follow.

Mom, Activist, Community Organizer