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Districts Scramble to Get Students Online During COVID-19 Crisis

School facade
Carver Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. (Credit: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

School districts in Central Virginia are scrambling to make sure kids have access to food, as well as tools they need to learn, including technology. Even though online learning may not officially count as “seat time,” school leaders want to make sure students don’t lose what they’ve learned so far this year, and have the opportunity to advance academically even though school is out for the rest of the academic year.

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras says the district plans to send digital devices they’re currently storing at schools home to students, including elementary school students. They also plan to purchase an additional 10,000 laptops for students who don’t have one at home, Kamras wrote in his daily newsletter Wednesday evening. 

Additional details about how the laptops will be distributed are forthcoming, according to district spokesperson Danielle Pierce. In an email to VPM News, Pierce said RPS is “focused on providing equitable access to technology (including devices and WiFi) for all of our students.” Pierce said they’re exploring options for funding, including “enlisting the support of philanthropies and requesting transfers from the School Board to repurpose currently allocated dollars, to purchase additional devices.”

According to Andy Jenks, a spokesperson for Henrico County Public Schools, the district has had what’s known as a “one to one” laptop initiative in middle and high schools for many years. This means every student in grades 6-12 is provided a laptop computer by the school division that they can take home daily. 

Jenks says tablets are provided to elementary school students, too, but the devices are normally stored at school and aren’t taken home. He says they’re looking into ways to get these elementary school laptops to students safely, now. 

Chesterfield County Public Schools has a similar model, according to district spokesperson Shawn Smith. The district is “one to one” in grades 2-12, with chromebooks in every kindergarten and first grade class. Although Smith says the district only allows students to take home devices starting in the 5th grade.

Hanover County Public Schools spokesman Chris Whitley says right now, his district doesn’t have a policy that allows students to take school-owned devices home. All middle and high school students will be issued their own laptops over the next two years as part of the district’s “technology plan.”

If families don’t have access to devices while schools are closed, many school districts, including Hanover, are providing students with printed copies of class work. “For those who are unable to access the internet with a device, we are utilizing printed curricula that is equally robust,” Whitley said in an email to VPM. “We will continue to explore more options for digital learning and engagement as we move into this next phase.”

The Virginia Department of Education has also encouraged districts to "track and collect data on the expenses related to COVID-19 that are projected to be incurred above and beyond anticipated expenditures. This data could be used to support funding to be detailed at a later date."

Many internet providers in Virginia are waiving late fees and pausing service disconnections for the next two months. Some are also providing WiFi hotspots to low-income families, such as Spectrum and Comcast.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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