As students work from home under the glow of a laptop screen, there are still many who don’t have access to the technology to do their schoolwork.
On March 13 Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a two-week closure of schools in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Then Northam extended the order to close schools for the rest of the school year, leaving many school districts scrambling to figure out how to reach their students.
During the first two weeks of the closure, Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools sent an email to the community saying that teachers were finding new and creative ways to connect and engage with students through online story times and morning meeting videos.
But the school district recognized that not all families would have access to computers at home and started preparing a school laptop distribution plan, said Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for WJCC Public Schools.
Cox said the WJCC surveyed students by first reaching out to high school families through email and phone calls to better understand how many students might need to borrow laptops from the schools. She added that the method of survey was chosen because the district figured even if a family didn’t have access to email on a computer, then they would still have access through a telephone.
By doing that, the district was able to better understand how many laptops would be needed for the high school level.
“Our goal is to be able to provide one for each family that doesn’t already have a computer,” Cox said.
The district started distributing laptops at the high school level because those students are typically doing the most amount of online work.
Students in the middle schools already have laptops through a one-for-one program that requires each middle school student to rent a laptop throughout the school year. However, these laptops have restrictions on them that only allow certain programs and would prevent other members of the family from using them.
Elementary school students will be given laptops at a later date after spring break, with a focus first on the older students and then eventually the younger ones as resources are available.
“The thinking is that at the high school level, there are so many different classes and thinking about long-term they could involve more blended learning opportunities and need more access to online resources,” Cox said.
In just a couple of days, the district has already lent 272 computers and plans to lend approximately 400 total to all grade levels. The computers are coming from the district’s stock of laptops, from computer labs and the laptop carts.
Laptops have been distributed at various times throughout the week, with the final distribution having been on Tuesday at Jamestown High School. Cox said it is determined on a first come, first serve basis and the district is hoping the community will uphold the honor code and only rent the laptops if a family really needs it.
For students who don’t have access to a laptop or to the internet, Cox said teachers have prepared learning packets that have been printed each week and can be picked up at the grab-and-go meal sites.
In York County School Division, the schools have been creating a plan for laptop distribution since early March, said division spokeswoman Katherine Goff. The division surveyed students in sixth through 12th grade to determine if they had internet access and computers.
The survey found that approximately 500 families would need a division-issued laptop at the middle and high school level.
For two days in mid-March, families were able to pick up the laptops at three school sites and a majority of the families who responded to the survey came to collect the devices.
The division currently has not issued laptops to elementary students but is working on a plan for its next phase of extended learning, which will be implemented after spring break.
In Newport News, Michelle Price, spokeswoman for Newport News Public Schools, said all students in Achievable Dream, Heritage and Denbigh High Schools have Chromebooks, part of the district’s 1:1 initiative prior to the coronavirus.
Price said the division had more than 1,000 Chromebooks and has distributed 746 Chromebooks and 72 WiFi hotspots. This week, 600 Chromebooks and 260 hotspots are available for students.
Students can checkout laptops and hotspots using their student ID at meal distribution sites.
Students and parents can let their respective teachers know if a laptop or hotspot is needed and be placed on a waiting list. They can also call the student’s school and leave a message.
For elementary students, lessons and homework are available on the school’s website. For those without internet access, learning packets are available for pick-up at each elementary school and meals-to-go sites.
Kellie Goral, spokeswoman for Hampton City Schools, said all students in grades 5-12 –––approximately 12,000 students––each have a Chromebook, part of the district’s 1:1 Initiative.
“We keep a limited number of Chromebooks in a reserve stock for students who have a broken Chromebook and need to exchange their current Chromebook or for newly registered grade 5-12 students,” she wrote in an email.
Students can use the Digital Help Desk to exchange their current Chromebook Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Goral said the school district has distributed more than 900 hotspots in the past two years, thanks to a grant from the Sprint 1 Million Project Foundation.
“Given this school closure, we have requested additional devices/hotspots and are waiting to hear back from Sprint,” Goral added.
According to Cox Communications, qualifying low-income families with K-12 students can now receive their first two months of Cox’s Connect2Compete internet service for free. This offer applies to customers who enrolled in Connect2Compete starting on March 13 and it’s available to new customers through May 15. Families can sign up at www.cox.com/C2C. After the first two months, customers will be enrolled at $9.95 a month.
Another option for families is requesting hard copies of schoolwork assigned from March 16 to April 3 from the school principal, Goral wrote.
Students in grades PreK-4 don’t need a laptop and the lessons are posted on the school’s website. If those students do not have internet access, hard copies of the lesson plans for the week of March 16 are available in bins outside Syms and Tarrant Middle Schools.
“We will be communicating to our families in the near future what the learning expectations will be after Spring Break and our distribution plan,” Goral wrote.
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