As the novel coronavirus pandemic wears on, at least 124,000 U.S. schools containing roughly 55.1 million students have been closed. In most states, closures are extending through the end of the school year. As schools pivot to remote learning as a result, school districts in cities like Washington D.C., Sacramento, and Philadelphia are working to ensure that students can access their digital classes by putting laptops directly in the hands of students.
With more than a quarter of residents living below the poverty line and growing gaps between rich and poor school districts across Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s efforts are particularly important.
“We’re one of the poorest cities in America,” says Melanie Harris, chief information officer for the Philadelphia School District. Thanks to annual parent surveys, “based on the stats we have on internet access in homes and computer devices in homes, we assume that 50 percent of our families have smartphone-only [internet] access.”
A week into the two-week school closure announced on March 13, Harris says that she and her team quickly realized that closures were going to be extended and moved quickly to make remote learning a possibility for students. “We followed New York [City] public schools’ model” — loaning internet-enabled iPads to students — “because they were ahead of us,” Harris says. In addition to the 40,000 Chromebook inventory the district already had in schools across the district, they would need an additional 35,000 to 40,000 Chromebooks in order to reach every student.
Harris’s team reached out to Comcast, which is headquartered in Philadelphia, to see if they had refurbished computers they could buy. “Within two days they connected us with a retailer who had gotten a shipment of 50,000 new Chromebooks and we were able to grab 40,000 of them.” It took a week to go from verbal commitment to board approval and finally to getting a formal contract in place. The laptops were then distributed to individual schools where families could pick them up until schools officially closed for the rest of the year on Monday, April 16.
After that, there were still two locations where families that hadn’t yet gotten Chromebooks for their kids could still pick them up. “Our superintendent was extremely clear that every child would get one, so if a family has five kids, every kid in the family got a Chromebook,” Harris says. The district is still in the process of acquiring internet hotspots to be loaned or families without internet access to complete the remote learning hardware circle.
While the computers remain property of the District and considerations like tying the return of the laptop to receiving a diploma for graduating seniors are being considered, Harris sees this rapid shift as an opportunity to rethink education moving forward. “This has really changed what access to technology in the classroom is going to look like in the future,” she says.
While laptop efforts are one major step in the right direction, the school district has much farther to go, according to Maura McInerney, the legal director of Philly-based Education Law Center. “It’s about much more than getting Chromebooks into the hands of the students,” she says. In addition to a bumpy rollout of the two laptop distribution points, “students with individual learning plans might not be able to utilize or benefit from remote learning…” because they often require additional services that can be tough to transition online. . She acknowledges that “most” schools can’t provide some of the in-person services they traditionally offer like occupational or physical therapy to their students with individualized needs, but “many well-funded school districts have been creative in providing one-on-one teletherapy [for those with learning-based needs] that remains with students throughout the day. Again, we see this great chasm between the haves and the have-nots.”
The Education Law Center has written to Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of the Department of Education Pedro A. Rivera on March 23 and April 1 to implore leaders to ensure equitable access to education during the pandemic including, but not limited to, addressing whether or not all students can benefit from distance learning and considering alternatives for those who cannot such as providing compensatory education when school re-opens.
On a larger, systemic level, the center, in partnership with the Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny & Myers LLP, is suing the state over school funding, which the groups say is inequitable because the state provides so little funding that schools are overly reliant on local funding. The result has been a deep disparity between schools in rich and poor districts. “We have asserted through the lawsuit that the current system of school funding”— “violates our state constitution in two ways: First, it violates the education clause whereby the state legislature must provide a thorough and effective system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth,” McInerney says. “Then we also assert that the current school funding system has created gross disparities that cannot be justified by any legitimate state interest.”
The case is slated to be tried in Fall 2020.
“On a very basic level, I worry about the message we’re sending to students in these under-resourced school districts where they lack basic resources including textbooks and access to technology and they have 34 students in a classroom,” McInerney says. “What message are we sending to these children about how valuable they are?”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.