Students with no access to a computer are finding themselves on the wrong side of a “digital divide” that could potentially stymie their education for weeks or even months, according to the local chapters of the American Federation of Teachers. As such, the V.I. Education Department is suspending grades until that divide is overcome.
In an interview with The Daily News on Wednesday, St. Croix AFT President Rosa Soto-Thomas lambasted Education officials for failing to order additional computers well in advance of school — an order was placed in mid-August — and for moving forward with a plan that puts students without devices at a “great disadvantage.”
Indeed, even as schools conduct their two-week “soft opening,” in which students learn the ropes of their new virtual setup, students without devices are already one step behind. And while the Education Department plans to receive roughly 12,000 Google Chromebooks to supply every student in the territory, that shipment could take months to arrive.
Until then, teachers are expected to follow “contingency plans,” phoning students who lack devices and finding other means to “keep them engaged” with instructional workbooks, recorded sessions and other means, according to Education officials.
For Soto-Thomas, these vague, fluid plans are akin to “pulling the plug” on the education of certain students and another way of driving them further behind their device-carrying peers.
“It’s disheartening for me as an educator, a mother, a grandmother, a union leader and a community activist to see our children in a situation like this where education is just not happening,” she said. “I understand that there is a shortage of devices globally and the Virgin Islands is not the only system in this quagmire. But it has been over six months [since the outbreak of COVID-19] and still we are not able to address the needs of all our students.”
St. Thomas-St. John AFT President Carol Callwood followed suit, questioning the department’s top-down approach to planning and the lack of teacher involvement.
“I have not been part of the conversation, planning or any discussion — there’s no direct teacher input,” Callwood said. “When they make a public announcement on social media is when we find out what’s happening.”
On Wednesday, Education officials appeared on Community Connect, a virtual town hall on the department’s Facebook page, to address some of the public’s concerns.
Most notably, Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin acknowledged the inequity in technology and called for a so-called “engagement period,” in which grading would be suspended until every student has a computer.
“At the Department of Education, our position is: we will not grade during this engagement period because it’s not an equal playing field,” she said. “It’s not equitable to all students and we cannot see ourselves asking teachers and students to be stressed and pressured with grading and having to be held responsible for content not taught.”
She added, “once all of our students receive laptops or we go back in front of their teachers … that’s when our official marking periods will begin.”
Berry-Benjamin said she informed Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and the V.I. Board of Education on the matter, the latter of which disagreed with the change. The Daily News reached out to the board for comment on Wednesday but did not receive a reply by press time.
Education officials advised parents to visit www.vide.vi for information on email listings and training sessions.
While laptops were distributed to students prior to school opening, there was only a limited supply.
As a result, on the St. Croix district, instructional workbooks were given to K-2nd graders; Acellus tablets for 3-4th graders; and laptops for online instruction for 5th graders and above, with 12th graders given priority. For the St. Thomas-St. John district, a limited number of laptops were also distributed, with seniors given priority.