When Seattle Public Schools transitioned to remote learning in the spring due to COVID-19, we knew there would be challenges. Chief among those challenges is this: Many households across the district — disproportionately Black, immigrant and households of color — lack reliable internet access or a device for students to learn from home.
But we have an advantage here in Seattle: Ours is one of the strongest tech communities in the world, and its members were more than ready to step up and help. Early on in the pandemic, Amazon donated 8,200 Chromebooks for families that didn’t have a device at home. At the same time, Seattle Public Schools reached out to sea.citi — a tech industry nonprofit that is dedicated to having meaningful local impact — with a question. The district didn’t have capacity to offer tech support to families: Could sea.citi help?
The answer was absolutely.
As donated Chromebooks were being distributed, the need for family tech support increased. Our initial start toward that support was nimble and scrappy. We engaged a team of Google engineers (who work on Chrome) to field requests and set up basic infrastructure. The calls were few at first, just 15 or so for every batch of 1,000 laptops that went out.
The calls started to come in more frequently, and we expanded support by launching the Family Tech Support Center to make assistance available to any family that needed it. The pool of support volunteers quickly grew to 140 people, all equipped with guidance on how to solve the most common questions based on the data we analyzed from the initial conversations. Even with the uptick of incoming calls, the data showed that not everyone who may need support was seeking it. In response, we initiated a volunteer outreach effort, directly contacting more than 1,000 families to ask if they needed tech support. To date, we have fielded more than 2,500 calls and directly assisted 750 families, including numerous families that speak languages other than English.
An obvious concern for school districts everywhere is how to keep kids engaged. But there are fundamental questions to get to first: How can we make sure every student and their family is set up for success with remote learning? How can we quickly connect them with these resources? What type of tech support do they need so they can focus on learning?
The support from sea.citi demonstrated that solving these questions is possible through true cross-sector collaboration between private industry and public institutions. With a deliberate approach and a willingness to deeply engage, we have been able to not only ensure that every family has a device, but also has the tech support they need to work with it. As we enter the new school year with additional support from the Tableau Foundation, we are preparing to scale up and operationalize the support systems we developed in the spring, allowing us to close the digital divide across SPS.
The district has committed to ensuring that every student has access to a laptop or tablet, and family tech support will continue to be available. This is in full alignment with the district’s five-year strategic plan, Seattle Excellence. Our partnership has evolved to focus on capacity at the district instead of separate services. Volunteers will provide extra muscle to the district’s tech support to help handle the increased need.
In addition, the Tableau Foundation has provided a $200,000 grant that will create a new Digital Equity Manager position at SPS. This role will manage digital equity initiatives to ensure that students and families are getting the support they need. The tech industry will continue to stay connected through a support network of professionals dedicated to digital equity. Remaining funds from the Tableau Foundation will run tech-support events, specialized training for families, or assist with other expenses like peripheral devices for students.
We know this year will be challenging and different for families, teachers and the community. Partnership and collaboration between SPS and our local tech industry can form a support system that’s accessible and sustainable for families over the long term.
Digital equity for students is imperative, especially this year. Together, we can solve it.