CLOS­ING THE DIG­I­TAL GAP

27,000 new lap­tops. ‘Wire­less on wheels.’ How Hamp­ton Roads schools plan to keep stu­dents con­nected

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Gor­don Rago Staff writer

One book a day and cud­dle.

It’s some ad­vice De­nae Hor­ton got from her son’s teach­ers af­ter the coron­avirus pan­demic closed the doors to their school, Thur­good Mar­shall Ele­men­tary in Ch­e­sa­peake.

Hor­ton had been feel­ing down. She was wor­ried she wasn’t be­ing the mother her two boys needed. She was pre­oc­cu­pied not only by what im­pacts the pan­demic was hav­ing on her own job prospects, but about their ed­u­ca­tion.

On top of all that were money con­cerns. She was ready to sell some items in the house so she could get them a com­puter to keep up with vir­tual learn­ing. The in­ter­net bill was more ex­pen­sive now be­cause they needed faster speeds to al­low all their de­vices to con­nect and run smoothly. Her grand­fa­ther is help­ing split the bill af­ter she shut the in­ter­net off for a

brief pe­riod this sum­mer.

Hor­ton had to worry about child care, too. The of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant po­si­tion she was count­ing on af­ter grad­u­at­ing in March from an in­ten­sive six­month job train­ing pro­gram seem­ingly van­ished be­cause of the pan­demic. She works as a nurs­ing as­sis­tant and plans to be home with her boys to start the school year, but also needs to keep up hours.

In­stead of get­ting an­gry about how the school year ended, she lis­tened to the teach­ers’ ad­vice. One book a day and cud­dle. Since March, Ch­e­sa­peake and other Hamp­ton Roads school dis­tricts have been fo­cused on help­ing fam­i­lies like Hor­ton’s by ad­dress­ing what has be­come a cru­cial part of learn­ing in a pan­demic: tech­nol­ogy and ac­cess.

Schools are spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars for up­graded equip­ment. Thou­sands of lap­tops. Over­haul­ing WiFi in­fra­struc­ture. Build­ing in­ter­net hotspots dubbed “wire­less on wheels” to park around town.

With just three weeks to go be­fore vir­tual class is in ses­sion, schools say they are get­ting ready. Sur­veys have helped iden­tify how many fam­i­lies are in need of de­vices and ac­cess to the in­ter­net. Hor­ton said she filled out a sur­vey in­di­cat­ing she was in need of com­put­ers so her old­est boy, Delon, who will be in the fifth grade, can get his work done. Her youngest, Lee’On­tae, will need one, too, as he heads into the third grade.

“Some way,” Hor­ton said, “we will get through this.”

Clos­ing the gaps

Tech­nol­ogy will play a key role in con­nect­ing stu­dents and giv­ing them a chance to suc­ceed in the class­room and be­yond, but dis­tricts need to be ag­ile in ad­dress­ing dis­par­i­ties in ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy and the in­ter­net, said Ni­col Turner Lee, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tute in Washington. She stud­ies dig­i­tal di­vides in ed­u­ca­tion.

Turner Lee pointed to a Com­mon Sense Me­dia re­port that found 9 mil­lion of the 50 mil­lion K-12 pub­lic school stu­dents who have had to learn re­motely from home be­cause of COVID clo­sures lacked ad­e­quate in­ter­net and de­vices. These sorts of gaps are more pro­nounced for Black, His­panic and lower-in­come house­holds, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

“It’s im­por­tant for us to sort of think through how do we re­solve those types of is­sues for fam­i­lies that have to choose be­tween broad­band and bread,” Turner Lee said.

Across Vir­ginia, the ma­jor­ity of pub­lic school di­vi­sions in­di­cated that 20% or more stu­dents don’t have ac­cess to in­ter­net at home, ac­cord­ing to the state De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. That’s largely an is­sue with more ru­ral dis­tricts, but in­cludes some fam­i­lies in Hamp­ton Roads who have low in­comes or live in less pop­u­lated parts of cities in­clud­ing Vir­ginia Beach and Ch­e­sa­peake.

There has been help for school dis­tricts in Hamp­ton Roads. Fed­eral fund­ing through the Coron­avirus Aid, Re­lief, and Eco­nomic Se­cu­rity Act has given some cash-strapped dis­tricts a chance to af­ford these big tech­nol­ogy or­ders. The fed­eral funds have helped fast track plans to out­fit most stu­dents with lap­tops.

“That’s the sil­ver lin­ing for COVID,” said Michael Cataldo, chief in­for­ma­tion and in­struc­tional tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer for Nor­folk Pub­lic Schools. “Ad­di­tional fund­ing to re­ally truly be able to sup­port in­struc­tion in a more unique and in­no­va­tive way that many have wanted to do for a while but the funds and the di­rec­tion wasn’t re­ally needed as much. Now, COVID re­ally put ev­ery­thing on fast for­ward.”

To that end, Nor­folk Pub­lic Schools has been con­tact­ing par­ents to find out how many lap­tops fam­i­lies need and ex­pects to get to­tals in the next week. Cataldo says they have enough de­vices on hand to ad­dress those needs. In ad­di­tion, the district ex­pects in the next two weeks to re­ceive an or­der of over 10,000 Chrome­books that would help Nor­folk be­come “oneto-one,” mean­ing each of their stu­dents would have a de­vice.

That or­der was placed around April or May, Cataldo said, but is­sues in the sup­ply chain, caused in part due to the pan­demic, de­layed it to at least the third week of Au­gust.

In Ch­e­sa­peake, Jeff Faust, the school di­vi­sion’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of tech­nol­ogy, said they’ve run into sim­i­lar de­liv­ery de­lays. The district is wait­ing on an or­der of 17,000 Chrome­books. The $3.6 mil­lion or­der was placed in May and Ch­e­sa­peake was ini­tially told the or­der wouldn’t come un­til as late as Novem­ber. Faust said he pushed ven­dors and called them ev­ery day and they now ex­pect to re­ceive the lap­tops as soon as mid-Au­gust and as late as the sec­ond or third week of Septem­ber

Faust said the or­der would not have been pos­si­ble with­out $6.3 mil­lion in CARES Act money. Ch­e­sa­peake’s City Coun­cil also re­cently al­lo­cated $1.8 mil­lion of the city’s CARES Act funds to the school district for tech­nol­ogy needs. The com­mu­nity has helped, too: Mount Le­banon Bap­tist Church do­nated $30,000 to go to­ward pur­chas­ing tablets for 360 chil­dren across seven ele­men­tary and pri­mary schools.

The Chrome­books will help the district get to one-to-one. Stu­dents across nine of Ch­e­sa­peake’s 45 build­ings have Chrome­books al­ready, Faust said.

Mov­ing to­ward the fu­ture

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment sent $238.6 mil­lion to pub­lic schools in Vir­ginia as part of the CARES Act. Hamp­ton Roads re­ceived roughly 22% of that chunk, and tech­nol­ogy ex­pen­di­tures ap­pear to be at the top of the list for some schools.

Vir­ginia Beach has plans to set aside $2.6 mil­lion for up­grades to teacher lap­tops and spend more to im­prove WiFi in out­door .ar­eas. The lap­tops haven’t been or­dered yet be­cause of avail­abil­ity, a school spokes­woman said, but they’re work­ing with a ven­dor to de­ter­mine which mod­els to or­der and hope to have them avail­able be­fore Novem­ber.

Hamp­ton City Schools plans $3.8 mil­lion in spend­ing on tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing ex­pand­ing ac­cess to Chrome­books for stu­dents in grades kinder­garten through fourth.

In New­port News, all stu­dents will get a Chrome­book for the up­com­ing school year, a school spokes­woman wrote in an email to The Vir­ginian-Pi­lot. The ma­jor­ity of those pur­chases were made be­tween March and July us­ing $1 mil­lion in CARES Act funds. High school­ers got their Chrome­books ear­lier this month and mid­dle school­ers were get­ting theirs this week. New Chrome­books for ele­men­tary stu­dents might not ar­rive un­til De­cem­ber, a spokes­woman said, but the district planned to dis­trib­ute de­vices to those who need them in the in­terim.

The pan­demic also has meant empty build­ings, al­low­ing at least one district to get work done quicker.

Since Ch­e­sa­peake schools closed in March, Faust said, they’ve over­hauled net­work in­fra­struc­ture in­side all the build­ings, which will help im­prove WiFi for those teach­ers re­quired to lead their vir­tual classes from the school build­ing. Some teach­ers have told The Pi­lot that cer­tain schools, such as Os­car Smith High, have poor in­ter­net con­nec­tions, lead­ing to de­lays in lessons.

The district also has or­dered 2,000 WiFi hotspots that will be dis­trib­uted for free to fam­i­lies who don’t have in­ter­net at home. Faust said they can get more if needed. The district will also be plac­ing five “wire­less on wheels” trail­ers around the city. The trail­ers pro­vide a free in­ter­net con­nec­tion and will be parked in pub­lic lo­ca­tions so any­one can con­nect a de­vice to it.

The tech­nol­ogy be­ing adopted now will change schools for good, Cataldo said. For one, dis­tricts can use less pa­per if more stu­dents and staff have re­li­able de­vices. In­struc­tion can be more on a stu­dent’s sched­ule and par­ents can be a part of their learn­ing. Mak­ing up missed classes af­ter snow days could be a thing of the past be­cause every­one has a com­puter.

“That’s the fu­ture,” Cataldo said. “That’s where we need to move to.”

KAITLIN MCK­E­OWN/STAFF

De­nae Hor­ton and her chil­dren, Delon Hor­ton, 10, and Lee’On­tae Jack­son, 8, at their home in Ch­e­sa­peake. Hor­ton said she filled out a sur­vey on her fam­ily’s need for de­vices and in­ter­net ac­cess.

KAITLIN MCK­E­OWN/STAFF

De­nae Hor­ton em­braces her chil­dren, Lee’On­tae Jack­son, 8, and Delon Hor­ton, 10, last week at their home in Ch­e­sa­peake.

CH­E­SA­PEAKE PUB­LIC SCHOOLS

Ch­e­sa­peake Pub­lic Schools has five re­mote so­lar trail­ers that pro­vide free in­ter­net ac­cess. The district plans to put them around the city to help pro­vide ac­cess for fam­i­lies as the school year starts off vir­tu­ally.

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