By Peyton Reed

 

When the world shut down in March, supplies began to sell out fast. Toilet paper, cleaning products, and office supplies quickly became scarce.[1] As families attempted to transition to working and learning from home, they were met with a harsh reality—public schools were grossly under-prepared for the transition to distance learning. Some districts reacted quickly, making bulk purchases of iPads and Chromebooks.[2] However, school districts in less affluent areas were at a distinct disadvantage.

 

The upfront cost of purchasing enough devices for each student to use at home is tens of millions of dollars.[3] School districts with deep pockets were able to shell out the money for their students. However, for low income school districts, buying a device for each of their students would eat up a huge chunk of their budget, if not the whole thing. School districts who had the cash on hand were able to purchase laptops in early 2020. School districts who did not have the ability to purchase devices had to wait for grants and COVID relief money.

 

From March to June, Chromebook sales rose 124%.[4] The increased demand for Chromebooks and other affordable laptops created an inevitable shortage.[5] Although we are well into October, hundreds of thousands of students across the United States are still waiting for Chromebooks to arrive.[6] This is particularly alarming for students since truancy laws are still being enforced in many states.[7] This fear is not unfounded. For example, Grace, a teenager from Michigan, was sent to juvenile detention in May for not completing her online schoolwork.[8]

 

Another big issue for students in disadvantaged areas is a lack of accessibility to Wi-Fi. School districts have scrambled to find solutions for students who cannot connect to the internet. A recent study by Common Sense Media details the severity of the gap in technology access.[9] Approximately 15 million students and 300,000 teachers across the United States do not have access to a stable Wi-Fi connection.

 

Some school districts have attempted to correct this inequity by creating hotspots in school buses. [10] This allows students at home to access Wi-Fi when they otherwise could not.[11] However, these Wi-Fi buses have some limitations. Most of the buses can only serve about 40 students at a time.[12] Additionally, some students might be on the outer limits of the Wi-Fi’s reach and need to move closer to the Wi-Fi for a good connection.[13] This could force some students to sit outside or in their cars (their parent’s car) to complete their schoolwork. Additionally, these buses operate on limited hours. The school buses are generally only available during hours of e-learning, between 8am and 2pm.[14] With this limited schedule, students who are given homework that requires access to Wi-Fi are met with the undue burden of finding other ways to complete it, or not completing it at all. For example, one student in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district was still unable to access Wi-Fi five weeks into the school year, and in turn has not been able to complete any class work all year.[15]

 

Fortunately, some internet companies are offering free trials for low income students and waiving installation fees.[16]After the trial ends, some companies are even offering discounted rates.[17] Regardless of school and corporations’ efforts, it is clear that low income students are severely disadvantaged in comparison to their peers that have access to adequate technology and stable Wi-Fi.

 

[1] Amanda Tarlton, 24 things that have been selling out online during the coronavirus pandemic, USA Today (Apr. 20, 2020), https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/reviewedcom/2020/04/20/24-products-selling-out-online-due-coronavirus-pandemic-toilet-paper-cleaning-wipes-yeast-and-more/5161629002/

[2] Tim Newcomb, Technology Shortage Hits Schools: As Remote Learning Jolts Demand for Chromebooks and iPads, Districts Warn Communities’ Needed Supplies Could Take Months, The 74 Million (Apr. 21, 2020), https://www.the74million.org/article/technology-shortage-hits-schools-as-remote-learning-jolts-demand-for-chromebooks-and-ipads-districts-warn-communities-needed-supplies-could-take-months/

[3] U.S. schools face shortage of laptops crucial for online learning amid pandemic, CBS News (Aug. 24, 2020), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/distance-learning-laptop-shortage-remote-virtual-education/

[4] Iein Valdez, ChromeOS.dev — A blueprint to build world-class apps and games for Chrome OS, Google Blog: Android Developers Blog (Aug. 12, 2020), https://android-developers.googleblog.com/2020/08/introducing-chrome-os-dev.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+blogspot/hsDu+(Android+Developers+Blog)&m=1

[5] CBS News, supra note 3.

[6] Id.

[7] KDE issues COVID-19 guidance on school ventilation and truancy, pupil transportation revised, Kentucky Teacher (Sept. 20, 2020), https://www.kentuckyteacher.org/news/2020/09/kde-issues-covid-19-guidance-on-school-ventilation-truancy-pupil-transportation-revised/

[8] Jodi S. Cohen, A Teenager Didn’t Do Her Online Schoolwork. So a Judge Sent Her to Juvenile Detention., Pro Publica (July 14, 2020), https://www.propublica.org/article/a-teenager-didnt-do-her-online-schoolwork-so-a-judge-sent-her-to-juvenile-detention

[9] K–12 Student Digital Divide Much Larger Than Previously Estimated and Affects Teachers, Too, New Analysis Shows, Common Sense Media(June 29, 2020), https://www.commonsensemedia.org/about-us/news/press-releases/k-12-student-digital-divide-much-larger-than-previously-estimated-and

[10] Megan Sims, Wi-Fi buses and beyond: How schools are creating internet hotspots for students in the era of remote learning, Yahoo! Sports (Sept. 20, 2020), https://sports.yahoo.com/schools-offering-hotspots-wifi-buses-during-remote-learning-210711259.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAIlRRx2g-tcb7C0jGwHDuAr1unxJiG_lx7yVbHtRqdyvB_Hh5O-Gw2d-SZ8LV-S83L6TVvP4v5yPJpkt33RgpKAytfrTa_-0ZnK-iY-9n1wK4kVH220VAO2uF4cVhdPVmCIgavQhvfVEP7–fOO-M6pCucYW301bYfhozXicqu99

[11] Id.

[12] Lex Gray, ‘Smart Buses’ roll WiFi to students without access, KXAN (Oct. 12, 2020), https://www.kxan.com/pass-or-fail/smart-buses-roll-wifi-to-students-without-access/

[13] Alaa Elassar, Austin school district deployed over 100 school buses equipped with WiFi for students without internet access, CNN (Apr. 14, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/14/us/austin-wifi-busses-independent-school-district-trnd/index.html

[14] Id.

[15] Caroline Hicks, High schooler unable to access internet with CMS hot spot five weeks into school year, WBTV (Sept. 18, 2020), https://www.wbtv.com/2020/09/18/high-schoolers-unable-access-internet-with-cms-hot-spot-five-weeks-into-school-year/

[16] Joyeeta Biswas, Comcast, AT&T, Sprint offering free or low-cost internet for students amid COVID-19 crisis, ABC 30 (Apr. 9, 2020), https://www.google.com/amp/s/abc30.com/amp/comcast-coronavirus-att-t-mobile-sprint/6069869/

[17] Id.

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