COVID-19 Laptop Delays Imperiled Tribal Students’ Education
Email Hannah Albarazi
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Law360 (April 30, 2021, 8:08 PM EDT) —
Throughout the pandemic, U.S. government-funded schools have struggled to provide Native American students with online learning due to delayed procurement of laptops, limited internet connectivity and a lack of comprehensive guidance for educators, according to a congressional watchdog’s Senate testimony Wednesday.
“The delayed order, delivery, and distribution of laptops to some students put them at risk of falling behind their peers,” Melissa Emrey-Arras, the director of the Government Accountability Office’s Education, Workforce and Income Security team, told the Committee on Indian Affairs.
The watchdog found that the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education, which oversees the education of 41,000 students at 183 schools it funds on or near Native American reservations in 23 states, struggled to equip students living in tribal areas with the technology they needed to do online learning.
While the bureau made great strides in improving students’ access to the internet during the pandemic, most students still hadn’t received laptops to access online learning by the time school began in the fall of 2020 because the bureau failed to order laptops for most students until September 2020, Emrey-Arras said.
Many of the communities served by the bureau’s schools are located in rural areas where broadband internet access has historically been limited. Just two years before the pandemic began, the Federal Communications Commission said that while about 6% of Americans lacked broadband internet access, about 28% of Americans living on tribal lands didn’t have access to broadband.
So while more students were gaining access to the internet, most students at bureau-operated schools lacked devices to access online learning until months after the 2020-2021 school year began because the bureau and the Indian Affairs’ Division of Acquisitions “did not provide these students school-issued laptops in a timely manner,” Emrey-Arras told the committee.
When the GAO inquired about the holdup, Interior officials said a nationwide information technology supply shortage contributed to the delayed ordering of about 10,000 laptops. But the GAO found that delays were also caused, in part, by the bureau lacking complete and accurate information on its schools’ IT needs. A delivery delay followed the ordering delay.
“Most schools received laptops from late October 2020 to early January 2021, although some laptops still had not been delivered as of late March 2021,” Emrey-Arras said Wednesday.
Distributing the laptops to students also took time.
As of late March, Emrey-Arras said, “nearly 20 percent of the laptops ordered in September had not yet been distributed to students.”
“In addition to delays stemming from nationwide IT shortages, two other factors primarily delayed the order, delivery, and distribution of laptops to students: incomplete information on schools’ IT needs and insufficient IT expertise and capacity at some schools,” the GAO found.
The watchdog recommended that the bureau establish policies and procedures to gather accurate information on its schools’ IT needs to help it guide IT purchases during the pandemic and in the future.
Emrey-Arras told the committee Wednesday that the bureau also didn’t provided its schools with comprehensive guidance on distanced learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and recommended that it do so. When the pandemic arrived in the U.S. in March 2020, the bureau issued a one-page memo directing schools to “deliver flexible instruction” and “teach content,” but did not offer specific guidance on how to do so, she said.
Educators surveyed by the GAO said they needed guidance on subjects such as how to develop and implement distanced learning programs and how to provide distanced learning for students without broadband internet access.
When the bureau finally issued a reopening guide in late August 2020, some schools had already begun their school year and the guidance was out of touch with the on-the-ground reality, the GAO found. The 76-page reopening guide focused primarily on preparations for in-person instruction at bureau-operated schools, although nearly all the schools provided distanced learning during the fall of 2020. The guide contained little information on distanced learning, and only half a page on what schools should provide for students unable to access the internet, according to the GAO.
“However, it does not describe how schools can or should practically provide these items to students,” the GAO said.
Emrey-Arras recommended that bureau Director Tony L. Dearman provide schools with comprehensive distanced learning guidance to help educators better navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and potential future emergencies that result in school building closures.
The GAO said the bureau initially received $220 million in pandemic-specific funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, followed by more than $400 million in appropriations under 2021’s Consolidated Appropriations Act. In March, the Senate approved more than $850 million for the bureau via the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
The bureau’s director and the GAO did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
–Editing by Breda Lund.
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