D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee looks through a Microsoft Surface Go with Charley Baker, a third grade student at Van Ness Elementary School in Navy Yard.
Grace Hu's daughter spends part of her day at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School on a tablet, working on reading assignments or solving math problems. But some devices, Hu learned, were slow or froze in the middle of class.
Hu spoke to other parents across the city and found similar stories: schools were assigning students more work on computers, but were struggling to maintain or pay for devices.
"Why would you have curriculum and testing and interventions online and not guarantee to schools working computers?" said the mother, who has spent the last few years organizing parents and lobbying for more technology from D.C. Public Schools.
Over the next few weeks, the school system will issue 16,400 tablets to campuses across the city as part of a plan to equip every student in third grade and beyond with a device by 2022. The school system expects to spend nearly $14 million on the tablets, which students will not be allowed to take home.
All third, sixth and ninth grade students will receive a Microsoft Surface Go, which can be used as a tablet or laptop, this school year. Students in other grades will each receive a device in the next two school years, according to D.C. Public Schools.
The tablets will stay at school. City officials said the tablets will help close the city's digital divide, or the gap between residents who have access to the internet and technology and those who do not.
Homes in parts of D.C. where more residents live in poverty were less likely to have high-speed internet, according to a 2015 report from the city.
Lewis D. Ferebee, the D.C. schools chancellor, said some schools were spending extra dollars or using money from parent organizations to supply classrooms with technology.
Providing each student with a device will lift "some of the pressure and burden off schools," he said.
"We had a wide range of devices in our buildings," Ferebee said at a press conference Thursday at Van Ness Elementary School in Navy Yard.
Affluent schools with more robust parent organizations raised thousands of dollars for technology, said Hu, whose daughter is in first grade.
"Some schools were able to manage this better because the parents were able to raise money," she said. "But even the ways they were filling the gaps were not necessarily sustainable."
School systems across the D.C. region have spent millions of dollars to put tablets and laptops in the hands of students.
In Arlington County, all students in the third grade and above are issued an iPad Air or MacBook. Fairfax County Public Schools announced last year it would give each student a Dell Latitude 3300 starting in the third grade.
Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, principal at Van Ness in Navy Yard, said the devices will allow students to work in smaller groups and learn at their own speed. She said effectively using technology can help close the achievement gap, or the academic disparities that exist between racial and other groups.
Robinson-Rivers said the school is keeping track of screen time, a common concern among parents who worry spending too much time on devices is harmful for children. She added the devices cannot replace quality instruction from a teacher.
"The devices are amazing, but they aren't the silver bullet," she said.