This article was written for our sponsor, Whitley Law Firm.
As COVID-19 persists, approximately 66 percent of North Carolina's 1.5 million public school students are enrolled in remote learning courses for the current academic school year. While necessary in order to maintain social distancing and keep health concerns at bay, distance learning presents a unique set of challenges and has amplified the pre-existing digital divide.
The digital divide refers to an uneven distribution of access to the internet and the technology to use it adequately. The gap has noticeably widened for those who have access and those who do not as schools, libraries, and other public spaces have altered their operations amid the pandemic.
"These gaps exist, and unfortunately, the folks that are disproportionately impacted because of the disparities that we have in general in our society tend to be black and brown. COVID-19 has just pulled the blanket off many of these different disparities in education, health care, and income," said Gerald Givens, president of the North Carolina NAACP.
To try and address these gaps, the N.C. NAACP has partnered with the Project for Equitable Access in Remote Learning, an initiative designed "to help mitigate the education equity gap that has intensified as a result of COVID-19."
"I have three kids. My two older children are in the Wake County Public School system. Last spring when everyone went remote emergently, we realized very quickly that it was next to impossible to work full time and homeschool full time adequately. We did the best week we could, but we realized that heading into the fall and this whole school year, we needed a better support system for our kids," said Kate Deiter-Maradei, an attorney, local activist and the founder of PEARL.
Deiter-Maradei has a history of working alongside partners like the NC NAACP to get projects like PEARL off the ground.
"We hired a graduate student and created a private learning pod to supplement what the kids are getting from the virtual academy to really help us make sure that they're processing the material and submitting everything that needs to be turned in. We want our kids to have the best shot at getting a good educational experience," Deiter-Maradei continued. "These private learning pods are pretty popular for folks who have the financial means to do so. That was the catalyst for the idea behind PEARL."
Deiter-Maradei said she realizes not every parent can provide these same opportunities for their children but she wanted to see if there was a way to offer this kind of support for students who might not have the financial means to access such resources.
The PEARL pilot program this fall will support Southeast Raleigh students who are members of the local Boys and Girls Club, with hopes of expanding in the spring. Pods of three to four students will work with a tutor for four hours per week and be assigned a layered team: one graduate or college student who works with the students and a retired teacher who will mentor each college/grad student instructor.
"We're hiring college and grad students to create these learning pods to work with students from communities of opportunity so they can have someone mentoring them and helping them through this virtual process," said Deiter-Maradei. "We hope to support the program with a $1,500 stipend for each grad/college student and $250 stipends for each participating family and retired teacher acting as a mentor to the instructor."
In addition to the N.C. NAACP, PEARL has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club and Wake Ed Partnership to mitigate the education gap that is being exacerbated by COVID-19. Deiter-Maradei hopes to get enough funding and interest to enroll up to 30 students, with a targeted launch date in September 2020. Students who successfully complete the program will be awarded a gift card. Instructors will meet with students in person at the Boys and Girls Club Teen Center in Raleigh, but observe social distancing and mask-wearing precautions.
Funding is being raised through grassroots efforts and generous contributions from donors like Whitley Law Firm in Raleigh, who donated $5,000 to the Raleigh non-profit.
"I know a lot of people who were bringing in tutors for their kids and I realized that this was only going to widen the education gap for some kids — there's not a level playing field for all students. The pandemic has made it harder for certain kids who don't have the same resources," said Ben Whitley, a partner at Whitley Law Firm.
Earlier this year, Whitley Law Firm also lent its support to another COVID-19 related effort — providing masks for farmworkers and the local Hispanic population.
"I felt that the digital divide was ever increasing because of the pandemic and I was looking for ways to see what we could do to help and I heard about PEARL. It was just right in line with how we wanted to lend our support," Whitley finished. "Our team at Whitley Law Firm works to support equal educational opportunities for all students. These PEARL mentors will not only help provide equal education but they will provide students additional resources outside of the classroom."
Donations are being used to help pay for instructors, conduct background checks and support the needs of families struggling to pivot to an unsupervised online world of education. The college instructors will help classroom teachers by flagging learning issues or problem areas and ensure students are submitting necessary assignments through virtual platforms on time.
Givens said PEARL aligns with what the NAACP is about. A friend of Deiter-Maradei, Givens said he knows she can make things happen.
"We work with a lot of community partners to be able to solve problems for our community and it really is a joint effort," he said. "Kate and I were talking about the disparities and what's going on with education due to COVID-19 and she came up with this great idea at one our planning meetings. Neither one of us wants to see kids fall further behind due to COVID-19. The NAACP has four pillars: political, education, social and economic. PEARL lines up with all four of those pillars of the NAACP, especially education and social."
The N.C. NAACP is helping generate publicity about PEARL and assisting with finding funding sources and qualified staffing.
"We need to help support these families and communities. We might not be able to help every single person, but we can impact those that we can," said Givens. "We're also happy to have partners like Whitley Law Firm who stepped up and made a commitment to create an opportunity for these kids, because that's what they do."
Added Whitley, "Because we're a family law firm and we are all from North Carolina, we feel that community is very important, especially the communities that we support with our offices. It's important for us to be a part of our communities, to be a steward of our communities, and to give back and invest in them."
Those interested in donating to PEARL through Wake Ed Partnership, can do so here.
This article was written for our sponsor, Whitley Law Firm.