There's a new puddle to leap for school districts attempting to bridge the digital divide.
As of 2017, all Virginia students will have to take at least one online course to earn their high school diplomas. The General Assembly passed the initiative in 2012 aiming to bridge that digital divide, but it may reveal a new gap for urban districts like Richmond where many students lack the daily access to technology enjoyed in wealthier suburban districts.
"I think you have to look at this in the context of what the state has invested in technology since 2000," says Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle.
Over more than a decade, the state pumped more than $700 million into 132 school districts under its Standards of Learning initiative, resulting in $26,000 annually for each of Richmond Public Schools' 46 school sites, Pyle says. Additionally, the state is making available a turnkey online class, personal finance and economics. The class is free for districts.
But is the state money enough?
Richmond Public Schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby says the district is prepared to meet the new requirements. "Our current student-to-computer ratio at the secondary level per the state's SOL mandate is 5 to 1," she says.
Tichi Pinkney Eppes, who now represents the 8th District, worked at George Wythe High School before her election. She says that while the school had computer capacity to meet SOL online testing requirements, "somebody would have to give up their class time [to allow the lab to be used for the state-mandated testing]." Which means lost instruction time in the displaced class.
In Hanover County, where technology infrastructure is well-established, the district offers a number of online summer school classes that meet the state's requirement. "We've been very deliberate with our computer technology growth model," says Daryl Chesley, assistant superintendent for instructional leadership. "But I can understand how some school divisions would be challenged."
He says the state money is helpful in covering much of the "upfront cost on computers," but "there's maintenance and then there's replacement cycles," Chesley says, noting that computers wear out fast in classrooms.
The new online class requirement applies first to next fall's rising ninth-graders.