Case Study: How Nebraska Department of Education tackled the Homework Gap During COVID-19

The Nebraska Department of Education’s (NDE) response to COVID-19 has included creating non-profit partnerships; offering webinars, professional development tools, and other resources for faculty; and providing nutritional support for families. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Commissioner of Education’s top priority was ensuring public safety; NDE gave schools flexibility to meet instructional hours and approaches. Working collaboratively with the Governor, an Executive Order issued in late April waived educational assessment requirements for the remainder of the school year.

But NDE’s work to address the homework gap started much earlier. In July 2019, NDE disseminated a survey to gauge students’ home Internet access and its effects on teachers’ ability and desire to assign homework requiring connectivity. The survey attracted a 30% return rate (6,900 responses) from 23,000 teachers over the summer.

NDE has been relying on both teachers and districts to collect home Internet access metrics, using a multi-phase approach:

  • First, they posted a guide for districts to help learning continue despite the crisis. This guide required district leaders to gauge access and device inventory in the community. The state provided guiding questions but did not formally recommend language. 
  • Second, they are planning to circulate a short survey that asks district leaders, “How did you serve students and address equity needs through your continuity learning plan?” 
  • Third, as part of the supporting unfinished learning from the summer and the transition back to school in the fall, NDE created Launch Nebraska, a playbook for safely reopening schools after the pandemic. Launch Nebraska highlights one of the highest priorities of schools in terms of using CARES Act resources: Supporting Technology Infrastructure. 
  • To assist with this work, NDE will issue guidance for administrators to respond to the COVID pandemic through a five-layer Hierarchy of Digital Learning Needs, beginning with the critical infrastructure layer (Internet to the home) and building to the fifth (application) layer, Teacher Professional Development and Training.

INTERNET FOR RESERVATION SCHOOLS 

One particularly exciting project to improve Internet connectivity for students is being conducted by three of Nebraska’s Indian tribes on reservation lands. The Santee Sioux, Omaha Nation, and Winnebago tribes are submitting applications to the FCC to implement a private education wireless network across two different counties, connecting up to nine public school districts and two tribal colleges, using the 2.5GHz EBS spectrum. The Elementary and Secondary and Higher Education Emergency Relief funds (CARES Act) are being used to help capitalize on the construction and equipment.

In sum, Nebraska is making a concerted effort to support districts in navigating distance learning during COVID-19 and is requiring active compliance from districts in submitting continuity of learning plans.