Impact Series

Microsoft and Seahawks assist lead new initiative connecting Washington college students to distant studying

Remote back-to-school in September 2020 includes an iPad and a kitten. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

As the vast majority of Washington’s kids are returning to school this month via Zoom conferences and online assignments, a statewide effort called the Digital Equity Initiative is launching Wednesday to provide urgently needed computers, tablets and online access for students lacking essential tech tools.

Microsoft, the Seattle Seahawks and Puget Sound Energy have donated to the effort, which is part of the All In WA campaign to help people across Washington who have been harmed by COVID-19.

A recent study estimated that in Washington, 15% of students lack needed digital devices while 22% don’t have adequate high-speed internet connections — though a state expert says roughly half of families here are without reliable broadband.

That has sent educators and families scrambling to put together less-than-perfect tech solutions in rural and urban areas alike. A superintendent in the mountainous town of Leavenworth is planning to create Wi-Fi hot spots in buses that students will be able to come to, while a mother of three school-age boys in Burien has a cell phone plan with unlimited data that will help the family limp through remote instruction.

“It’s a triage situation. We have a really serious issue right now that needs to be fixed — the students out of school have no other option,” said Joyce Walters, executive director of the nonprofit InvestED.

When schools moved to online instruction in the early spring, districts cobbled together tech resources for families without them and provided some learning materials in paper form. Seattle Public Schools in March said it wouldn’t provide online learning, noting that not all students had access to computers and the internet. Over time, the district did begin offering digital instruction in various forms.

While there was widespread hope that students would return to schools in the fall, it wasn’t to be. In early August, Gov. Jay Inslee advised that the rates of COVID infection were too high for most of Washington’s more than 1 million school-age kids to safely return to the classroom.

Student-free halls at Loyal Heights Elementary School in Seattle. (Kurt Schlosser / GeekWire)

The Office of Superintendent of Public Schools in mid-August got access to $8.8 million from the federal CARES Act that it’s using to help low-income students connect to the internet, but much more is needed.

“As we work to keep our communities safe and healthy during this crisis, we must ensure all children have what they need to access distance learning,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a prepared statement. “The Digital Equity Initiative is helping to provide thousands of students in Washington with the support necessary to keep up with school while our state recovers from this pandemic. Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed, and the public, private and nonprofit sectors have come together to make this possible.”

Since its May launch, All In WA has raised more than $55 million for a variety of outreach efforts. Support for the organization’s Digital Equity Initiative includes:

  • $1.25 million from Microsoft to kickstart the fund.
  • $200,000 ​from Puget Sound Energy to help purchase hardware and provide hardware support.
  • $120,000 from the the Seattle Seahawks Charitable Foundation, plus promoting the initiative on its website.
  • The new NHL team, the Seattle Kraken, is highlighting the effort on social media.
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos previously vowed to match individual donations up to $1 million to All In WA, including the initiative.

InvestED will be distributing the funds collected by the initiative. The 57-year-old foundation partners with more than 600 Washington schools with higher numbers of low-income students to provide financial support directly to educators to pass along to families.

With a network already in place, “we’re going to be flowing the dollars out to the districts as quickly as possible,” said Walters.

But the truth is, the tech equity problem is nothing new. For years, lower-income and students of color have lacked digital resources that give other students an advantage academically and in future careers. Experts on tech access are hoping that the current spotlight on the inequity will translate into lasting change to aid students being left behind.

“What I see right now is a really big effort to meet the immediate needs. It hurts right now, but I want to make certain we’re keeping an eye on the future,” said Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office. He’d love for school districts to track where families are lacking online access in order to help the state assess and target the need for investments in broadband.

Walters is likewise hoping that COVID can be a catalyst for lasting change to close the digital gap.

“It’s going to take all of us saying once and for all, that we as a state are going to support this” Walters said. “Now is the moment to say we can do better than this.”

The Northwest tech industry has stepped up over recent months in a variety of ways to support students. That includes:

  • Amazon’s donation of nearly 9,000 Chromebooks to Seattle Public Schools, a gift supporting the district’s Education Equity Fund.
  • Boys & Girls Club of King County is receiving a donation of 300 Surface devices from Microsoft the Seahawks foundation is helping with internet hot spots.
  • Southeast Seattle Education Coalition’s exchange site for accepting donations of computers and other tech supplies.
  • Tableau Foundation grant of $200,000 to create a digital equity manager position within Seattle schools and to fund the Family Tech Support Center, which assists families with IT challenges and was created with support from, a tech industry nonprofit.
  • Multiple grants from the Tableau Foundation to bolster remote learning for students of color, including $350,000 for the Technology Access Foundation.
  • Alaska Airlines provided transport for 12,000 iPads whose order was delayed and the devices were needed for Seattle Public School students.

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