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After schools switched from physical instruction to remote learning in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, districts and state leaders assured families they would get devices for students and the technology resources needed to do schoolwork at home. But more than two months after the switch to distance learning, many students still don’t have what they need.

Students who haven’t had access to technology since mid-March could face significant problems, said Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that works for innovation in schools.

“If we can’t get every student access, that’s going to exacerbate the gaps even more.”

Karen Cator, CEO of the nonprofit Digital Promise

“When schools reopen, we’ll have to try to figure out what kinds of learning loss there has been,” Cator said. “Some students will have had no education access for up to six months. Some students will have just the normal kind of summer learning loss.”

Only 24 percent of public school teachers reported that all of their students had access to a computer or tablet to use for school work, according to a nationally representative survey of 600 public school teachers conducted in early May by Educators for Excellence (E4E).

Kids in low-income families were most likely to be left out of remote learning. A survey of more than 1,500 parents by ParentsTogether Action, a parent-led nonprofit, revealed that children from families with a household income of less than $25,000 per year are 10 times less likely to participate in remote learning than children from families earning more than $100,000. Children from low-income homes were also three times more likely to lack consistent access to a device (32 percent vs. 10 percent).

“What’s happening has absolutely laid bare the nature of the inequities with regard to home access to technology,” said Cator.

Five weeks into the shutdown, many students still lacked access to necessary technology. In New York City, for example, 19,000 students who had requested devices still didn’t have them by late April, according to reporting by Chalkbeat and WNYC. With a month of school left to go, the city’s Department of Education was not sure just how many students lacked needed devices.

24 percent — proportion of public school teachers who reported in a national survey that all their students have access to a computer or tablet to use for school work.

On the other side of the country, an estimated 1.2 million California public school students had no computers or internet access at home by late April, according to the California Department of Education. By the end of May, the problem had not been resolved.

In an online press conference May 27, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said that while the state has worked with companies and foundations to distribute more than a 100,000 hotspots and 21,000 computers, “there’s a gap in supply.” California needs “at least $500 million to address the immediate needs of our students,” Thurmond said. He estimated some 600,000 students are still waiting for a computing device, while 300,000 to 400,000 students have no way to get online and need access to an internet hotspot. He called for companies, foundations and individuals to donate technology resources. 

But devices for students are sometimes hard to find. Many companies produce them as they’re needed rather than keeping storerooms full of hardware. According to Cator, this has created a supply chain shortage and a delay in access to devices.

And while larger districts have been able to secure large orders of computers and tablets, smaller districts, especially those in rural areas, are still having trouble finding enough for their students. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, California’s largest public school system, Superintendent Austin Beutner announced in mid-May that “just about every one” of the district’s students had a device, thanks to a “procurement team working around the clock to scour the globe and find devices.” The Metropolitan School District of Pike Township in Indiana was not so fortunate. It couldn’t get vendors to commit to a delivery date for orders of laptops it placed in early March, according to Education Week.

Children from families with a household income of less than $25,000 per year are 10 times less likely to participate in remote learning than children from families earning more than $100,000.

Foundations, companies and individuals are trying to fill the gap and purchase equipment for students or provide resources for school districts. New organizations like Devices for Students, a coalition of educators, tech employees, nonprofits and local businesses working to close the digital divide in the Bay Area, have sprung up alongside additional programs from established groups, like the new initiative, DigitalBridgeK-12, from EducationSuperHighway.

Hundreds of teachers from Florida to California have requested distance learning materials and devices like writing tablets and Chromebooks on DonorsChoose, a nonprofit education crowdfunding site. Donations to many distance learning projects are being matched by various DonorsChoose partners., for example, is currently matching donations for distance learning projects in specific counties in California. DonorsChoose also launched the Keep Kids Learning Pilot Program, which — on teacher request — shipped materials directly to student’s homes. By May 21, funding for the program had run out. Parents and teachers have taken to social media to plead for device donations for their kids.

While Cator, of Digital Promise, applauded individuals who are taking the initiative to provide for their students, she added that “technology is part of an infrastructure that needs to be procured at a school and district level.” Cator said “some sort of hybrid model” of learning will be required to deal with the continued threat of the coronavirus when schools re-open in the fall. If that is the case, it will be vital to get all students online. “If we can’t get every student access, that’s going to exacerbate the gaps even more,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about devices for students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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