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Schools Struggle to Get Laptops to Students During Pandemic

A school superintendent in Connecticut this week likened getting 60,000 laptops into the hands of needy high school students around the state to filling Yankee Stadium and making everyone walk out with a computer.

by Linda Conner Lambeck, Connecticut Post / April 2, 2020
Slow or unreliable internet access is a reality for millions of Americans. ben dalton/Flickr, CC BY-SA

(TNS) — Getting 60,000 laptops into the hands of needy high school students around the state of Connecticut was likened Wednesday to filling Yankee Stadium with students and making each one of them walked out with a computer.

Only the students aren’t in the stands, but scattered across 33 school districts — and it is a middle of a coronavirus pandemic where a safe distribution trumps connectivity, East Hartford Schools Superintendent Nate Quesnell said on Wednesday

“This would be a logistical challenge in a perfect environment,” added Guilford Schools Superintendent Paul Freeman, Quesnell’s co-chair on a Learn from Home Task Force put together by Gov. Ned Lamont.

The last few weeks and the weeks that lie ahead are the opposite of a perfect environment, Freeman said.

Freeman and Quesnell, during a conference call with education reporters, said their goal is to bridge the digital divide for students who live in homes without computer access at a time when all students have become distance learners.

With schools closed, many districts are now using computers to deliver course material. Some have lent students computers that normally remain in school. That is not universally possible in some districts, such as Bridgeport where there is not currently a computer for every student.

Some 42 percent of the state’s 500,000 public school students live in alliance districts that will get first crack at the free computers. It’s estimated about 50,000 are in high school.

How many do not have computers or the Internet at home is unknown.

The task force and state Department of Education hope to learn that information by Friday, when school superintendents complete an application for the free computers. The governing board of the Partnership for Connecticut, a public-private partnership, agreed on March 23 to allocate money for the laptops. The estimated $40 million cost is to be split between the state and the Greenwich-based Dalio Philanthropies led by Barbara and Ray Dalio.

Even working at “warp speed,” the co-chairs say computers won’t hit school districts until late April or early May. Some may not get the hardware until June.

“There aren’t 60,000 computers sitting in a warehouse,” Quesnell said. “It will take time.”

Distribution will likely come in waves.

The task force, which also includes schools superintendents from New Haven, Waterbury, Middletown and Winchester, has been meeting virtually since March 23, shortly after the Partnership for Connecticut announced they would fund the purchase of 60,000 laptops.

They are looking to Dell and HP, and hope to get a good deal given the bulk purchase — perhaps $350 a unit.

It promises to give some districts a one computer per student ratio they’ve never before enjoyed.

For now, charter schools, most of which exist in alliance districts, are not eligible for the program, officials said.

In addition to the laptops, districts are getting packets of books for elementary and middle school students from Scholastic — a gift from Indra and Raj Nooyi, of the Pepsi Corporation. The 185,000 books and activity guides will be bundled by grade level and distributed to schools based on the number that alliance districts tell them are needed.

Families can keep the books. The computers will be owned by school districts.

It will be up to districts to decided whether students can keep the equipment over the summer. A lot may depend on how long schools remain closed this spring.

“This is the first step,” Freeman said.

Nick Simmons, Lamont’s coordinator of strategic initiatives, said the governor’s office is working on phase two of the initiative which is making sure the computers can be connected to the internet.

It is estimated that as many as 12 percent of households don’t have the internet.

©2020 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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