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Baltimore-area schools face technology gap to reach students at home during coronavirus shutdown

Baltimore-area school leaders have struggled to connect students with computers and internet access, such as the laptops in this file image, purchased in 2018 by Govans Elementary School after a fundraising effort.
Baltimore-area school leaders have struggled to connect students with computers and internet access, such as the laptops in this file image, purchased in 2018 by Govans Elementary School after a fundraising effort. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

As schools closed last month to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Shenira Dorsey was able to tap into a source for refurbished computers that has made her 6-year-old daughter, Brandie Bell, one of the fortunate students in Baltimore City.

The Digital Harbor Foundation gave Bell a laptop that offers her online learning access not available to some of her classmates at her Federal Hill elementary school and across the city.

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“She loves it. It means a lot,” Dorsey said. Without the laptop, she added, “she wouldn’t have access to doing the school work.”

Maryland schools are closed until at least the last week of April. For a student with a laptop and high speed internet, there’s still contact with teachers and classmates through video meetups, a list of online lessons and videos that can teach everything from math to gym class. Without a laptop, a student has a packet of homework assignments and limited connection to their teachers and friends.

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That stark difference between the technology haves and have-nots is playing out across the region as, for the first time, school systems attempt to deliver lessons to students at home. Educators worry that the digital divide will leave disadvantaged students even further behind during and after the public health emergency.

School systems are rushing to buy new and used devices. Baltimore City purchased 12,200 Chromebooks recently, but even after those are distributed as many as a third of city students may not have access to the internet. Even in Baltimore County, which has one device for every student from grades three through 12, none have been distributed to elementary students yet.

Baltimore County School Superintendent Darryl Williams said until the school system determines the logistics of handing out the computers while adhering to social distancing guidelines, elementary students will use paper materials. The system is expected to mail out 55,000 packets this week.

Students in kindergarten through grade 2 will be getting the printed work for the duration of the shutdown unless their parents can offer them a device.

“I have concerns about students continuing their learning during this state of emergency. We have to think about students who may not have access to Chromebooks and those who may not have supports at home," Williams said.

And even in families with laptops, he said, parents may need to use the one computer as they work from home, or there may be multiple children and only one laptop.

“We have huge gaps right now in the ability of students to be able to engage in distance learning,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who is working to try to get more federal funding for technology in subsequent coronavirus bills. “Now you really need to have access to the internet ... It creates deeper inequities in our educational system.”

There are efforts underway to get more technology to students, but it won’t come quickly.

About $240 million from the federal government is headed to Maryland schools within the next couple of weeks, and some of that money could be used to buy laptops or provide internet access to families who don’t have it.

In the meantime, school districts have been working to get more laptops in the hands of students. Baltimore City, which has one of the lowest ratios of laptops to students, needs between 24,000 and 27,000 more laptops, according to Roger Schulman, president of the Fund for Educational Excellence. For several weeks Schulman’s local nonprofit has been asking for donations, raising about $100,000 from individuals and foundations to help purchase new and used laptops.

“Every district has some kind of digital divide, but not at this scale that I know of,” Schulman said.

But even with more money, school leaders say there aren’t many computers — particularly the popular Chromebooks — available to purchase.

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So for the past month, tech firms and the Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore City have come together in a decidedly low tech way to round up computers. Ed Mullin, executive director of the Baltimore Robotics Center, likens the effort to the drive to collect scrap metal during World War II.

In this case, the need is for citizens to turn over that old laptop in the back of the closet, Mullin said. Working through LinkedIn, he tries to find computers, get them refurbished and handed out through the Digital Harbor Foundation.

“I run around Baltimore doing porch pickups,” he said.

So far Mullin’s distributed about 100, but he thinks the numbers are likely to increase quickly.

Most school systems have sent out surveys to parents asking if they have internet connections and computers. Anne Arundel County schools has been able to hand out at least one computer to every family that has expressed a need, according to spokesman Bob Mosier. While some students may have to share a laptop with a sibling, he said, at least every family that has made a request has one or will get one soon.

In one of West Baltimore’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, New Song Academy is finding it challenging to find a computer for every student — or to even know how many students need one. Principal Doug Fireside said a survey showed a little more than half of his students have at least one device — other than a mobile phone — that can connect to the internet.

“You have got people with absolutely no technology. That is super difficult,” Fireside said.

In some cases, families have a phone and unlimited data so they can read on a phone. But lots of families haven’t responded to his survey which, by necessity, is internet-based.

Anne Gorman, principal at Milbrook Elementary School in Baltimore County, said much of the burden for that important connection with students has been placed on teachers, who have tried to stay in touch with all of their classes even when internet is an issue. They have emailed, called and used a free app called ClassDojo, which for years has been used to connect teachers with parents on a closed, private network.

Since the coronavirus hit, the app has been used to communicate with families about ways to get their children access to lessons, Gorman and Fireside said.

“The teachers are working really, really hard to connect with their students,” Gorman said. “They miss them.”

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Still, she said, she worries about her students from immigrant communities who are not participating perhaps because of the language barrier.

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Fireside and Gorman said a surprising number of students are connecting on weekly virtual meetups. At New Song, in Sandtown-Winchester, 17 out of 24 students in the fifth grade signed on to the first meeting — some through a phone.

“Kids are craving the kind of connection that teachers can give them,” Fireside said.

Fireside said he was struck by the school system’s ability to get thousands of devices delivered last week.

“That is a herculean effort. Every district in the country is looking for devices," he said. “It’s like ventilators. It is literally every district for themselves."

But having a device isn’t enough. Some families also need help getting high speed internet into their homes.

Comcast is offering free internet to low-income families for two months, but the school systems are trying another approach as well. Shashikanth Buddula, the city schools chief technology officer, said the system hopes to be able to procure hardware that could be attached to the side of a school building to extend its network into the surrounding community. If successful, a family six blocks away would be able to get free internet inside their homes.

School leaders realize they are unlikely to overcome all of the technology gaps, and that extra efforts will be needed with some students once schools reopen.

“We can’t come back to school business as usual. There are going to be deficits that we have to close," said Cheryl Pasteur, a county school board member.

In the meantime, Brandie’s mother Dorsey said she believes there is inequity in any system that leaves some children out.

“I think it is very unfair because technology has taken over the world," she said. “I think every child should have a laptop and internet access."

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