The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As D.C. students struggle to get online, schools and parents rush to fill the void

While his younger brother Kooper Brisbon, 2, sits at a toy desk, Eagle Academy Public Charter School at Congress Heights second-grader Kenard Brisbon, 7, watches a math lesson last week. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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When D.C. public schools closed on March 13, Na’Asia Hawkins was eight courses and five months short of walking across the graduation stage this summer. But now her courses were quickly shifting online, where Hawkins had little hope of keeping up. She had no computer, no WiFi and no idea how she would watch her 2-year-old son and do school work using her iPhone’s limited data plan.

A week later, she caught a break: Her teacher at Washington Metropolitan Opportunity Academy told her the city would permit high schoolers to bring the schools’ laptops home. She picked up the computer, turned her phone on as a WiFi hotspot and got to work. But then, another hurdle: She quickly exhausted the data plan.

Hawkins, 18, had already needed to drop out of high school once when she had her son. But she re-enrolled in an alternative high school, studied, and was determined to graduate this time — no matter the cost.

“Searching for your work and looking up so many things on your phone [was] hard,” said Hawkins, an aspiring pediatrician. “It’s a big struggle for kids who don’t have computers, and I wish they did.”

Fourteen days into remote learning, the school closures have exposed the technology divides in the city — and how academically debilitating the divide is for students who fall on the wrong side of it.

Some, like Hawkins, have scrambled to find makeshift but costly solutions. Eventually, her boyfriend’s family paid for WiFi that Hawkins can use to do schoolwork, even though the family already lost wages amid the shutdown. Others still have no access at all.

Schools, activists and nonprofits are trying to fill the gaps, delivering computers and hotspots to children who need it. D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee has said students would not be penalized for work they miss during the school closures. And he is rushing to get students in all grades the tablets and tools they need to fully participate in remote learning, he said.

But it may not be enough. The mayor had said schools would reopen on April 27, but closures appear likely to last longer, as some states, including Virginia, have already closed campuses for the academic year. Parents, teachers and advocates say disconnected students are already falling behind. An initial study, by a private education-data firm, projected that the closure will result in thousands of additional students performing below grade level in math and English, with students from low-income families suffering the most.

“It’s unethical, it’s immoral. The greatest issue is the outcomes,” said Maurice Cook, who runs the nonprofit Serve Your City and is trying to secure laptops and coordinate Internet connections for low-income families. “What are the consequences for the students who don’t have access?”

The lack of access can look different in every house. But many families lack even basic tools: computers and an Internet connection. The traditional D.C. public school system estimates that about 30 percent of its 52,000 students lack Internet access or computers at home. For some schools, that percentage is far higher.

Sharon Murphy, founder of Mary House, a nonprofit that provides housing and social services to immigrant families, said a mother called her days after schools closed and asked to borrow $200. Her children had used her cellphone to do their remote learning and had unknowingly blown through her limited data plan. Another family got online with the generosity of a neighbor who allowed the children to log on to their WiFi network.

“We have a lot of families who can’t afford Internet and have antenna TV,” said Murphy, who has been trying to help families navigate a Comcast Internet program aimed at low-income families.

Some families are so disconnected that schools can’t even reach them. One charter school principal said when the city’s restaurants closed, many of the immigrant parents at the school who worked at them shut off their pay-as-you-go phones, making it difficult for teachers to even check in on students.

“We are certainly concerned about the students we haven’t touched,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Monday during a telephone town hall meeting with the District’s education leaders.

Often the problems are more nuanced. Leigh is a mother of a fifth-grader at Cleveland Elementary School in the Shaw neighborhood; she wouldn’t give her last name for privacy reasons. She thought she was prepared, with a personal computer and basic WiFi connection. But her computer crashed during the first days of remote learning.

She’d just lost her job at a property management company and couldn’t afford to purchase a new computer. Her daughter has been completing paper academic packets distributed by the district and talking to her teachers on the phone. But she has been missing out on the online math and reading programs she usually completes at school. Leigh worries her daughter will be unprepared for middle school if she can’t get her back online.

“A lot of the work they are doing at school is computerized,” Leigh said. “Whatever they are purchasing, it makes no sense that it hasn’t gotten to the kids yet in this type of emergency.”

Marilyn Wiggens lives with her daughter and five school-aged grandchildren in a three-bedroom apartment in the Langston Lane complex in Southeast Washington. Before schools closed, the household had no computers.

The TraRon Center, which uses art to work with families affected by gun violence, gave them two laptops to use during the shutdown. But it’s not enough for five children, and Wiggens is left juggling their schedules. She gives the high schooler priority in the mornings, but sometimes the younger children miss calls or activities with their teachers.

“I would have to wait for my sister,” said Aiyden Wiggens, a third-grader at Stanton Elementary School. “It makes me feel bad and I miss my teachers and friends who I don’t see. I miss doing work.”

Wiggens said there are kids in her subsidized complex who, with no computers or Internet, spend much of the day playing outside. She’s torn. She wants the children to complete their assignments, but she doesn’t want to allow them into her apartment, potentially exposing her family to the coronavirus. So each day, she said, at least two children in the building sit in the hallway with her to use her computer and WiFi and complete their school work.

“They are missing out on some of it because we don’t have enough computers,” Wiggens said. “The packets, the distance learning that [D.C. Public Schools] provided, it is not helping as much.”

At least 32.5 million students across the United States have had their schools closed because of coronavirus. Here's how some students are coping at home. (Video: The Washington Post)

So far, it has required a patchwork of nonprofits, parent-teacher organizations and city efforts to begin addressing the divide.

The city’s 62 charter operators collectively placed a $250,000 order last week for 1,600 T-Mobile hotspots for students who lack WiFi. KIPP DC, the city’s largest charter network, has distributed Chromebooks to all its middle and high school students. They sent Android tablets to elementary students. The network estimates it will spend at least $1.6 million on computers and hotspots for its 6,800 students.

Eagle Academy Public Charter School, which serves students in preschool through third grade, is handing out iPads to any student who needs them.

For the traditional school system, a much bigger operation, it’s been a struggle to deliver technology to students. Last month, before the school closures, Bowser announced a $4.6 million investment to purchase 16,400 devices in schools across all eight wards.

Ferebee initially only allowed high school students to take devices home. Under pressure from the Washington Teachers’ Union and some education advocates, he said last week that he would also distribute Microsoft tablets to middle and elementary school students. Distribution times will be staggered for safety reasons. The school system has also purchased some hotspots to deliver to students.

Donors have contributed more than $1.7 million to the privately established DC Education Equity Fund, which hopes to purchase tablets, laptops and WiFi hotspots for students in traditional public and charter schools. The fund is in the process of distributing $1 million to charter and traditional schools for laptops and WiFi hotspots. Fund officials said they hope to use the next batch of money to invest in more long-term solutions, including broadband networks in low-income neighborhoods.

Ferebee said that with so many school systems and workplaces purchasing devices right now, it’s been difficult to find them. Still, he said the city’s remote-learning efforts have been successful, with large numbers of families across the city picking up paper packets and logging onto the school system’s remote-learning portal.

“Everyone is trying to procure devices and solve for Internet access,” Ferebee said. “We have made a lot of progress, and we clearly still have work to do. This is new for families and we want to build as much as support.”

But activists and residents are calling on city officials to act more urgently. Parent-teacher organizations say they are having to step in to meet the large demands at their schools.

Alexandra Simbana, a mother at Cleveland Elementary, said the Parent Teacher Organization identified 57 families who do not have a single laptop or tablet at home at the school. The PTO is tapping a $30,000 reserve fund, saved over the last few years for special events, to buy 57 laptops for students at $200 a piece.

“We have to do something,” Simbana said. “Because it is very clear that Superman is not coming to help us.” 

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