COVID-19 in Philly: City schools will spend $11M on ChromeBooks for students who don’t have computers

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By John N. Mitchell

PHILADELPHIA — One day after the School District of Philadelphia Board of Education decided to spend $11 million to buy up to Chromebooks so teachers can continue to educate students while the city is under a stay-at-home order, Comcast Corp. CEP Brian Roberts and his wife donated $5 million to help the effort.

School district administrators plan to get the laptops into the hands of all students who need them in the approximately 130,000-student district by the week of April 13.

“The digital divide in Philadelphia has been long standing, with many communities having access to in-home computers and internet services for their children while many still do not,” School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said in a statement. “This inequality is a significant barrier barrier to our goal of helping all students in every neighborhood reach their full academic potential.”

Roughly 55 percent of school district students in grades 3 to 5, 44 percent in grades 6 to 8, and 42 percent in grades 9 to 12 do not have access to a computer and/or internet at home, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the school district.

The district currently has about 40,000 laptops. The Board of Education authorized the purchase of up to 50,000 Chromebooks. District administrators will work with the staff at each school to determine how many more they need to buy to be able to distribute one to every student.

The school district will buy the Chromebooks from Computer Dealers, Inc., Hite said Thursday.

Closed on March 13 in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, the state has ordered all schools to remain closed until April 6. The state’s plan currently calls for teachers and other staff to return to schools on April 7, and students to return on April 9.

Hite told reporters earlier this week that he believes schools could be closed longer.

Some school district administrators initially attempted to teach students remotely, but administrators ordered all remote graded instruction to stop because many students could not participate.

Online instruction is currently scheduled to begin soon after laptops are distributed.

School district administrators currently are working with the city to identify low-cost internet options and free Wi-Fi mobile hotspots across the city. A list will be available on the district and the city’s websites by the week beginning April 6.

Comcast has made Xfinity Wi-Fi free for everyone who lives in areas of the city where it’s available.

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The Roberts family’s donation was made to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia. Because it came after the Board of Education approved the $11 million expenditure for the laptops, it could be used to defray other costs related to connectivity.

“We’re living in an unprecedented time and COVID-19 is presenting our society with new challenges every day,” Aileen and Brian Roberts said in a written statement. “When we heard that many Philadelphia students weren’t going to be able to learn from home without laptops, we quickly decided we wanted to help and provide these teachers, parents and students with the technology they need to begin learning online within just a few weeks. In good times or bad, now all of our Philadelphia students will have access to technology to help them succeed.”

It is unknown if the school year, which was scheduled to end in June, will be extended. When learning resumes, schools will have been closed for more than a month.

John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.