As Classes Move Online, What Happens To Students Without Internet Or Computers? As the new strain of coronavirus continues to paralyze all aspects of public life, including schools, educators across the D.C. region worry students without access to technology will fall behind.
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NPR logo As Classes Move Online, What Happens To Students Without Internet Or Computers?

As Classes Move Online, What Happens To Students Without Internet Or Computers?

Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, offered breakfast and lunch grab-and-go for children 2-18 years old on March 16, 2020. They gave away 144 lunches in an hour. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

In the chaotic days before and after all public schools in the Washington region shut down for at least two weeks, school systems scrambled to prepare for teaching students from afar.

Some teachers are giving lessons through video conferences on Zoom. Others are uploading materials to online learning platforms such as Canvas, or directing students to educational YouTube videos.

But for students in Prince George's County Public Schools, learning materials won't be provided online. Educators, worried not all children have laptops or Internet at home, printed hard copies of instructional packets for students before campuses in Maryland shuttered last week.

[Read the latest updates about coronavirus in our region here]

"We will not be implementing remote learning," Prince George's schools CEO Monica E. Goldson said at a March 12 press conference. "I cannot guarantee that every child has technology and has access to the Internet."

Many school systems in the Washington region, including Prince George's, have so far made schoolwork optional while schools are closed. Students are not learning new material.

But as the new strain of coronavirus paralyzes all aspects of public life, threatening to keep campuses closed for much longer than a few weeks, educators across the D.C. region worry students without access to technology will fall behind.

Last week, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel urged Internet companies to provide WiFi for students as campuses close. In the District, city officials estimate about 25% of homes do not have Internet.

"Schools are closing and so many students are being told that their classes are migrating online," Rosenworcel said. "We need to act immediately so that no child is offline."

Several suburban D.C. school systems have bolstered laptop and tablet supplies in recent years to equip students as early as third grade with their own device.

In Arlington County, each student starting third grade is issued an iPad or MacBook. In recent days, Loudoun County Public Schools ordered 15,000 Chromebooks to ensure older students have devices through the system.

Educators at schools with less technology fear that closures will exacerbate inequities as more instruction moves online.

At Charles Hart Middle School in the District, many of James Isreal's students complete assignments on cell phones by connecting to WiFi. All students at the Southeast school are considered economically disadvantaged.

"Many of them, for the most part, don't have laptops," said Isreal, an English teacher who also sits on the board of the Washington Teachers Union.

Isreal said students without cell phones or data plans normally complete assignments or research at public libraries. But all libraries in D.C. are closed for at least two weeks, as part of an aggressive effort by the city to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

During the closure, Isreal said he plans on uploading materials to Google Classroom and answering students' questions by live streaming on Instagram. Educators at Hart are also printing packets with instructional materials for students who do not have internet.

Before schools closed, D.C. Public Schools was in the process of issuing all students in third, sixth and ninth grade a tablet.

The effort is part of a three-year, $14 million plan to get devices in the hands of every student in the third grade and beyond. Students will not be able to take the devices home.

The school system, which educates more than 50,000 students, is surveying school leaders to collect information about students who do not have access to computers or internet at home.

D.C. school officials said students will be able to download learning materials on Canvas during the closure, which will last until at least March 31. Teachers may also record lessons for students and create video conferences.

Hard copies of materials are also available for students. The system is encouraging families to sign up for free WiFi that Comcast has offered to low-income families during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a statement from D.C. Public Schools.

In Montgomery County, many of the students in Dave Airozo's fourth grade class at Forest Knolls Elementary are English learners from working-class families. He said older students are issued Chromebooks, but they are not allowed to bring the devices home.

Some students at the school in Silver Spring only have internet access through a parent's cell phone or share a laptop with siblings.

"If you have multiple children, learning at multiple levels, then that makes it really, really difficult," Airozo said. "I hesitate to think that this would be equitable. I can't imagine how we could say it's going to be."

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