With a week left until an all-virtual start to the academic year, D.C. school leaders are racing to connect with students they have lost contact with over the summer and struggling to determine who still needs technology to participate in distance learning.

It’s a heavy and high-stakes lift in a transient city where nearly 25 percent of the city’s public school students live below the poverty line and 50 percent are considered at risk for academic failure. A city survey found that more than half of respondents lacked adequate technology at home.

And the to-do list doesn’t stop there.

Enrollment in the city’s public schools is down, and school leaders are calling parents to make sure they know they still need to fill out enrollment forms even though the academic year will start virtually on Aug. 31.

Once students are enrolled and have devices, schools still need to ensure that families know how to use them. The challenges are often compounded for immigrant parents, who may speak little English.

It’s a complicated situation that illustrates how difficult it is to get students of widely different circumstances on an equal technological footing.

“When you look at the digital divide, it’s gaps on literacy on gaps on literacy,” said Megan Macaraeg, a organizer at Many Languages One Voice, a local organization that received a grant to distribute 150 laptops and Internet hotspots over the next two weeks. “There’s technology literacy, and then there’s literacy literacy.” 

And while some schools have started distributing technology to families, others won’t begin until the start of the academic year.

When schools in the District closed in March, Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said a third of families in the public school system needed technology. By June, the school system had distributed 10,000 tablets and laptops and 4,000 hotspots for its 52,000 students. But it wasn’t enough. Teachers at some schools reported having to choose which students would be allowed to take home devices.

Local activists and parent-teacher organizations tried to fill the void.

Maurice Cook, who runs the nonprofit Serve Your City, delivered donated laptops to families in the spring. This summer, the group raised money to deliver nearly 200 backpacks with laptops and hotspots to families for the upcoming academic year. Cook said many of the families for whom he procured computers barely participated in distance learning in the spring and have had little contact with schools.

For the upcoming year, the school system purchased 21,000 more computers and said the city would provide a device to any student in need, Ferebee told families this month. Many of the devices will have built-in Internet access. The city also has more devices on hand that it did not distribute in the last school year. In all, the school system says, it will spend more than $12 million on technology and services, with a portion of that coming from emergency federal coronavirus relief funds.

Donna Black and her children are among the families who still need computers and Internet access. She and her seven school-age children are homeless and lived in the Quality Inn motel this spring with a single cellphone and no Internet. When she went to her daughter’s high school to pick up a laptop, school administrators told her they were out.

Two weeks before the school year ended, she procured two ­iPads, but she didn’t have reliable Internet in her hotel room. The children instead completed the paper academic packets their school provided and had little interaction with teachers.

But Black is hoping the fall will be different. She has made appointments with her children’s elementary school to pick up tech devices for them and is waiting to hear back from her daughter’s high school. She wonders whether there is a way to get headphones so all the children can participate in their classes in a single room.

“It was really unfair. They wanted to be able to socialize and see their friends and see their teachers,” Black said. “If they all get devices of their own, I think next year can be pretty good.”

Residents have long been calling on the city to address the digital divide and are angry it took the pandemic for leaders to take it seriously. Advocacy groups such as Digital Equity in DC Education are calling on the school system to provide every student with a device, arguing that with such complex needs, that is the only way to ensure everyone has adequate technology. They fear that when so many nonprofits and community members donated computers to families, they may have given them devices incompatible with the school system’s software.

“The city has known about this,” Cook said. “People didn’t just lose Internet and laptops because of covid-19.”

Hard-to-reach families

Even as District officials rush to deliver technology to students, they may have an incomplete picture of families’ needs. D.C. Public Schools has been circulating a survey to determine how many devices are needed. Families can complete it over the phone if they can’t do it online.

About half of the school system’s families have completed the survey, and more than half of those families indicated they lacked the necessary technology to participate in distance learning. Some families said in interviews that they did not know about the survey.

And schools have struggled to connect with families during the pandemic. School leaders say parents frequently change phone numbers and addresses depending on their monthly finances. They sometimes use their phones only with WiFi, and with limited access to public spaces, that is increasingly hard to find.

The charter sector — which educates more than 45,000 students — reported on May 1 that its schools had not been in contact with 1,334 students, including 363 adult education students, since schools shuttered.

Bruce Jackson, principal at Miner Elementary in Northeast Washington, said his faculty managed to contact all its students during the spring semester. But, over the summer, the school lost touch with some students. Jackson said the traditional public school is still working on reaching about 5 percent of its 415 or so students.

“We had a lot of families pre-covid that changed their numbers,” Jackson said. “But normally you could just see them at drop-off and pickup and ask them to update their contact information.”

Across the city, school leaders say enrollment is down as they struggle to find families to submit the necessary residency verification forms, a step that is required annually. Administrators would typically remind families in person to go to the school’s main office to re-enroll their children.

At a virtual Ward 4 education community meeting this month, school leaders told the dozens of attendees that communication was particularly challenging among Spanish-speaking and immigrant families. There were parents, one school employee said, who were still learning that school would be all virtual in the fall.

Two high school principals in the public school system said that they were behind in enrollment and that hundreds of students they were expecting to return had still not re-enrolled.

Other school leaders said at the meeting that they noticed they had fewer Spanish-speaking students enrolled for the upcoming year.

“School-based staff has had to really sit down with families that speak languages other than English to help them go through the enrollment process,” said Raquel Ortiz, an employee with the school system’s community engagement division. “Recently arrived families or families that were not in our system and have needed help transferring in.”

Maura Marino, chief executive of Education Forward DC, a nonprofit helping to manage the DC Education Equity Fund, said the needs of families change daily. The fund raised $2 million for student technology in the spring, distributing around half of it directly to public and charter schools. It has reserved $600,000 to help fill gaps that may emerge after the school year begins.

“People are new to the schools. There’s questions about replacement devices. Kids may have moved. They have Internet in one location, not in the new one,” Marino said. “These needs are in flux. . . . We have to just keep asking daily.”

Charter schools are facing the same challenges as the school system, but they have smaller student bodies and can often more easily address some of their technology problems. Charter school leaders said in interviews that during the pandemic, they have gone door-to-door with laptops and hotspots and had parents re-enroll their children in their front yards.

KIPP DC, the city’s largest charter network, is promising every student a Chromebook, plus a device for each child at school once buildings reopen. At Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Southeast, school leaders are distributing laptops and, for families who cannot afford to pay for Internet, offering to put their bills on the school’s tab. IDEA Public Charter School in Northeast used a school shuttle to deliver devices to students’ homes.

Shay Feggins didn’t need any technology in the spring. She had multiple laptops for her two children at Roosevelt High in Northwest to use. But the laptops were old and, after months of heavy use, they broke down. So when the school asked whether families needed devices, she didn’t hesitate.

“They offered it,” she said, “and I came quickly to pick it up.”

Technology only the first step

Even with all the right technology, it’s not guaranteed that a student will participate in remote learning. In the spring, teachers said in interviews, just a third of their students regularly attended classes. Some teachers fear that with more parents back at work, it could be a bigger struggle for students to log on in the fall. They are optimistic that a new attendance requirement will boost participation.

But parents and students need to know how to use the technology before they can participate.

“The reality is that not everyone is going to be able to log on every single day for every single class,” said Nina Graham, a teacher at Ballou High in Southeast.

Signe Nelson, a teacher at Whittier Education Campus in Northwest, said at a community meeting that she and two other teachers taught 65 parents how to use the computers and programs for distance learning, spending a few hours on the phone with each parent.

D.C. Public Schools has reduced the number of online platforms and hosted a virtual session last semester to teach families how to operate the Microsoft platform that students use in remote classrooms.

Carlos Rosario International Public Charter, a school serving adults learning English — many of whom have children in the school system — is teaching its students how to help their children log on to their courses.

“Simply getting technology into their hands is only the first step,” Nelson said. “We found that very few [English as a Second Language] students had enough familiarity with the technology to log on to the platforms themselves.”

Until school starts, until the technology is distributed, it will be unclear whether the city will be able to meet families’ needs.

Tasha McKay, a mother of three, lost her job at the city’s soccer stadium when the pandemic hit, and she didn’t have Internet access. Her daughter’s middle school provided her with a laptop, but the family had only a cellphone as a hotspot. She heard about an affordable Comcast home Internet program that education leaders have promoted, but she worries that prices will eventually go up and that she will be faced with another bill she can’t afford.

She also didn’t know about the city survey on technology but has heard that the schools may be better positioned to help in the fall. So she’s waiting.

“I want them all to be prepared,” McKay said. “We’ll see how the transition goes. They are missing out on a lot.”