From her home in Falls Church, Virginia, teacher Kalpana Sharma gathered her props: three water bottles she made into puppets, paper for drawing a picture of her feelings and tinfoil shaped into boats that could float in the kitchen sink.
Then Sharma took a deep breath, clicked a link on her computer and began recording a 30-minute lesson for her preschool students — and for any other young child with a television near Washington, D.C. The lesson is slated to air on a local Fox television channel starting Monday at 10 a.m.
As districts scramble to deliver distance learning for weeks of coronavirus school shutdowns, some are turning to television as a way to reach students who lack broadband internet or computers.
While imperfect and less personalized than Zoom chats or online lessons, district-vetted television programming attempts to bridge the digital divide. Internet access or no, just about all households have a TV and a way to access local channels.
“This is at least a light of hope for low-income families,” said Sharma, who’s taught preschool in the District of Columbia Public Schools for 19 years. She works at Brightwood Education Campus, where almost all K-8 students come from low-income families.
“If parents don’t have internet access, they can watch something on TV and get some learning done with their kids,” she said.
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The Washington Teachers’ Union is putting its own educators on television. Other districts, such as in Los Angeles, Boston and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, have created partnerships with local PBS stations to re-purpose existing programming and air segments for certain grade levels at specified times.
While many have applauded the efforts, advocacy groups say televised lessons alone are not enough to close the gap in equity between traditionally developing, digitally connected students and those who are disadvantaged. Nor will it fully close the gap in access for those with disabilities.
Educational content on TV is certainly better than nothing for students, but people with hearing or sight impairments may still have trouble tuning in, said Mark Shapiro, president of the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, a group that advocates for making the web accessible for all people.
While creative, the TV programming highlights another problem: Districts weren’t ready to conduct remote learning in a calamity. Some of that is understandable in a sudden pandemic. But districts should use the coronavirus outbreak as the impetus to change, Shapiro said.
“Schools need to prepare for the next time we see an increase in the need for distance learning,” he said. “For students to have the same chance at success, they need to have access to the same materials, regardless of who they are and their circumstance.”
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Los Angeles launches ‘low-tech’ learning
The Los Angeles Unified District, which runs its own public broadcast station, quickly partnered with two more PBS stations in mid-March to air educational programs every day.
Many of the episodes are coupled with quick interludes from the district that connect the show to content standards and that give students new ideas to consider.
The “low-tech” solution has been one way to reach the nearly 700,000 students in the nation’s second-largest district, said Austin Beutner, Los Angeles schools superintendent. About 80 percent of the students live in poverty, and roughly 1 in 4 don’t have internet in the home. The district also has worked to provide online learning options for a more high-tech experience, he said.
“We know there’s no real substitute for learning in a classroom,” Beutner said. “In this time and environment, we want learning to continue, and so it’s going to look different. We hope that this provides an opportunity for families to sit down together and maybe say, ‘Let’s watch this show on Reconstruction together.'”
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About 71 PBS stations in 30 states have picked up the enhanced Los Angeles content, called At-Home Learning, PBS leaders said. In the second week of programming in Los Angeles, viewership has risen to about 140,000 homes and 200,000 people tuning in every day.
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Public schools in Boston and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are also curating PBS content for students.
Starting Monday, Boston’s PBS station and WGBH Boston will partner to provide five hours of daily programs for students in middle and high school, from noon to 5 p.m., on the public media WORLD channel. The programs will feature science, history and English language arts. PBS stations nationwide will have access to the material, according to leaders of both channels.
In Bethlehem, public television leaders and educators partnered to produce educational programming that will be broadcast to elementary students in the Lehigh Valley. That area includes Allentown, a city of more than 110,000, where many students lack internet access. The shows will begin Monday.
“The sole medium that can reach nearly 100% of students is broadcast television,” said Victoria Scialfa, marketing manager of Lehigh Valley Public Media.
Seattle Public Schools, which has weathered criticism for not offering online learning to all students because it can’t do it in an equitable way, also has put some educational programming on a public access channel and YouTube.
In D.C., 30-minute TV shows pair with phone calls
The teachers’ union spurred the televised lessons in D.C. by partnering with a local Fox station that agreed to clear out a 10-10:30 a.m. time slot each weekday. Monday is for early learners and first graders, Tuesday is for second and third graders, Wednesday for fourth and fifth grade students, Thursday for middle school students and Friday for high schoolers.
The televised lessons are a critical addition given that about half of D.C. students don’t have computers in their homes and the district has been slow to release more district-owned devices to families, said Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.
“We’re trying to find all the ways possible to get learning to students,” she said.
Teachers can’t cover much content in just a 30-minute time slot. And so far, they’re having to record the lessons after their normal daily duties, which include connecting with students and families through a variety of platforms, including plain old phone calls.
Mandrell Birks, the technology instructional coach at Eliot-Hine Middle School, edits and produces the segments before sending them to the station. He’s squeezing in the work on nights and weekends, after helping his colleagues troubleshoot a new reality of digital teaching each day.
Birks chats with teachers about how to design lessons for TV, what the background should look like and what props would work well. He then sends a link they can click to record themselves, and he watches live, from his own home, to offer feedback.
When Sharma recorded her first lesson for her preschool students, the half-hour she planned finished in a mere 18 minutes.
“No students in front of you and no checks for understanding — I’d never taught to a screen before,” she said.
Birks told Sharma she’d need to record the lesson again, so she spent a couple hours gathering more props to keep viewers engaged. She turned water bottles into puppets. She drew multiple faces to stick on each side of a spatula: Happy and sad, calm and disappointed. She practiced floating and sinking her tinfoil boats in sink water. (She added coins to one of the boats to make it heavier).
Her second recording was masterful, her colleagues said. But Sharma thinks she can do better.
“The first lesson, I just wanted them to understand: It’s OK. We all have feelings and we are all living with uncertainty,” Sharma said.
Academic content can come later, she added.
“I thought puppets would be a better way for them to express their feelings. And I hope families will get engaged with them to talk about their feelings.”
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Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @emrichards
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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