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Baltimore-area schools start the year with online education. Thousands of students lack a way to engage.

On the first day of a new school year in the midst of a pandemic, tens of thousands of students will likely be left behind, unable to show up Tuesday to greet their classmates and teachers on a computer screen.

Despite efforts by Baltimore-area school systems, students who lack internet access or a laptop won’t be signing on to the live online classes, their only opportunity for instruction until schools reopen. And they aren’t likely to get connected quickly.

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The Maryland Department of Education has no reliable data on how many of its approximately 900,000 public school students lack access to a reliable internet connection or computers. Neither do many school system officials who say they’ve spent the summer attempting to reach disconnected households.

“The fact that schools will start on Tuesday without a clear understanding statewide of who can and who cannot access their classroom is a failure beyond epic proportions,” said state Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “Nothing should have been prioritized over this basic infrastructure question over the last 90 days. If kids aren’t in class, nothing else about the education system matters.”

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He described the situation as the equivalent “of sending students to school without a roof.”

“That should be unimaginable,” Ferguson said.

The problem has been looming over school and state officials for months, but they will have to face it head on Tuesday.

In places like Harford County, where laptops are on back order, students in kindergarten through grade 3 won’t have devices to access classes unless their family provides them, administrators said.

Portions of Baltimore County remain unserved by internet service providers. Commercial entities tend to pass over rural parts of the county for expansion because there are not enough prospective customers to justify the infrastructure investment.

While many school systems used federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase internet hotspots, those devices won’t function in areas that also lack cell phone service.

In Baltimore City, the school system has paid the $650,000 Comcast bill to provide internet to 14,000 disadvantaged children, negotiated to buy up to 20,000 hot spots from T-Mobile, and handed out 30,000 laptops.

And yet, when asked how many students still don’t have access, CEO Sonja Santelises said bluntly: “I don’t know.” There won’t really be an answer until Tuesday when children sign on, she said.

She is hoping for 80% attendance on the first day.

Some school systems on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are expanding Wi-Fi footprints to school parking lots. However, administrators are worried that schools won’t have enough internet bandwidth to support every student connecting to the network simultaneously.

Some plan to rotate groups of students to log on during different times of day, and several systems are setting up centers that will allow small groups of students to come to schools where they can access the internet under supervision.

Baltimore City College High School senior Kimberly Vasquez experienced serious internet connectivity problems in the spring when her classes moved online. The 17-year-old’s family uses Comcast’s Internet Essentials package for low-income customers and found that the bandwidth could not support Kimberly and two younger sisters logging onto classes simultaneously.

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“Sometimes I would have to politely ask my sisters to log off so I could turn something in,” Kimberly said. “I don’t think I should be put in a position where I should have to validate whose education is more important.”

Kimberly asked about getting one of the school’s hotspots to help boost her connection for the fall semester but was told there were none left, she said. As a result, she knows she will not be able to attend all of her four daily classes this semester if she wants her sisters to attend theirs.

“I consider myself a good student, but I felt ashamed that I couldn’t participate in everything,” she said of the problems attending class in the spring. “I felt like a failure.”

The problem isn’t limited to Maryland. There are an estimated 11 million to 14 million homes across the nation that don’t have internet access, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“That is a major issue nationwide,” he said.

Surveys by Domenech’s organization show that about 88% of school districts are planning to be all online or do a hybrid model of some in-person classes and some online. Congress has failed to act to make internet available to all students, he said, despite lobbying from education advocates.

Identifying neighborhoods that lack a reliable internet service poses a major challenge for school systems and the state, which have largely relied on broadband service maps from the Federal Communications Commission. However, that data is considered outdated since the pandemic, and somewhat unreliable.

Hereford High School chemistry teacher Charlie Fluharty said teachers won’t know for sure who on their student rosters doesn’t have internet for weeks. If a student doesn’t show up to class, he said, teachers won’t know if the cause is a lack of internet or that the student doesn’t want to join for some other reason.

Teachers will first email parents and, if that fails, a staff member can visit the student’s home. Schools know the pandemic may have caused upheaval in families, including moves to other neighborhoods or states.

Nevertheless, Fluharty and his wife, who is also a teacher, have purchased webcams and white boards to re-create two classrooms inside their house, one in their basement and the other in a spare bedroom they emptied out, hoping that they will have most of their students start on Tuesday.

“Everybody should have equal access to the internet somehow, not based on where they live or what their economic status,” he said.

To come up with an estimate of the need in Baltimore, Santelises said the city school system looked at data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, which suggests that 20,000 families, or about 40,000 students, don’t have internet in Baltimore.

So the system has paid Comcast to provide service to some families and bought hotspots. That won’t be enough. With computers back ordered and nonprofit partners trying to build internet networks, thousands of students won’t have internet by Tuesday.

The same is true in Harford County, where administrators have identified about 380 addresses that cannot physically access broadband. Superintendent Sean Bulson asked families to voluntarily opt out of accepting school system devices if they don’t need them. Still, that idea did not yield enough extra devices to cover the school system’s deficit, and 15,200 new devices are not expected to arrive for another six weeks.

“We’ve scoured the schools to come up with devices, but they’re too old, and we cannot get enough of them in working condition,” Bulson said in a memo sent last week to Harford families.

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Anne Arundel County officials say they believe about 150 families — less than 1% of their students — still need internet access. In some cases, the school system has supplied an interpreter for non-English speaking families to help communicate with Comcast to get them connected.

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Like Harford County, Anne Arundel is having about 25,000 of its 85,000 students supply their own laptops while 30,000 Chromebooks are on back order.

Howard County had 1,600 families this spring without reliable internet service, and the county is attempting to figure out ways to get them connected with funding from the local Bright Minds Foundation, which will pay for six months of internet or give families a hotspot.

Baltimore and Carroll counties acknowledge they don’t know how many families are without internet. While only 18 families in Carroll County lack access because their homes cannot get service, there are an unknown number who can’t afford internet, said Carey Gaddis, a spokeswoman for the school system. When officials identify those families, they help them enroll in free internet for 60 days through Comcast, then expect to pay the ongoing costs through grants and school dollars.

About 3% of Baltimore County students — roughly 1,338 children — were inactive in the digital environment during the spring. Spokesman Brandon Oland noted there may be a “variety of reasons” why those students did not log on.

Baltimore County is one of the few school systems in the state to have provided nearly every student with a computer before the pandemic struck. Oland said the system has about 115,000 devices, which is enough for current enrollment levels.

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