by Andrew Garda
While school districts face many challenges getting students back into classrooms, a massive issue some districts must deal with in going remote is a backlog of Chromebooks.
At a briefing last month, Gov. Phil Murphy said three of the world’s largest computer companies — Lenovo, Dell and HP — have reported a combined shortage of nearly 5 million laptops.
Since remote learning began in March, manufacturers have struggled to meet demands they were not prepared for, while also trying to overcome embargoes and other hurdles to getting components, specifically from China.
Kevin Kells, CEO of Google for Education, is trying to help get Chromebooks to New Jersey districts, according to Murphy, but Kells said the backlog comes in part from manufacturer Lenovo, which is not able to fill orders.
Murphy pointed to the Paterson school district, which had 13,000 Chromebooks on back order, but the problem has reached Montclair as well.
The issue is critical to equal access to education in COVID times — students at home cannot attend virtual classes if they do not have access to either a computer or the internet, or both.
In Montclair, although spring attendance was optional during remote learning and the classes operated on a flexible schedule and framework, for the fall attendance will be mandatory. Classes will be held according to a schedule, with live, teacher-led sessions several times a day, which means every student requires his or her own laptop.
Most classes will be held on Google Meets, Google Classroom and Seesaw, which require internet access.
Montclair has received more than 1,300 requests from students and families for help getting the technology and internet access they need, school officials said.
The district used part of the $1,748,771 technology budget, as well as $102,525 out of the $354,038 it received from the CARES Act, for Chromebooks and hot spots and to purchase devices that have “touch” capability for students in need. However, the backlog at the manufacturer level delayed shipments, and with few or no new computers coming, the Montclair School District had to alter its plans.
“Unfortunately, due to shortages, we had to develop a plan to meet our needs,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said. “This plan was to go into our schools and collect devices so that we could utilize these and distribute them to our families in need.”
According to Montclair schools technology director Chris Graber, the district has given out 1,300 Chromebooks and 51 WiFi hotspots, which allow access to the internet from anywhere for students who do not have an in-home internet connection.
Graber said the district would receive and distribute another 49 laptops this week. Officials would not comment on how many more may be needed.
Students throughout the U.S. lacked access even before the pandemic hit and schools closed.
In a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, researchers found that one in five teenagers cannot finish homework because they face technological hurdles. The problem is especially glaring for school-age children in lower-income households, who are more likely to lack broadband access, according to the study.
“Roughly one-third of households with children ages 6 to 17 and whose annual income falls below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, compared with just 6 percent of such households earning $75,000 or more a year,” the study reported.
The percentage of households in the U.S. with children aged 6 to 17 with no high-speed internet connection is highest among Black (25 percent) and Hispanic (23 percent) students, more than double the percentage of white students (10 percent).
When looking at impoverished households, those making less than $30,000 a year, the percentages go up significantly, with 41 percent of Black households, 38 percent of Hispanic households and 28 percent of white households lacking high-speed internet access.
The study also revealed that one in four lower-income teens lack access to a home computer.
For internet access, Ponds wrote, the district has sought help from Comcast.
“We are currently working on entering an agreement with Comcast to provide their Internet Essentials package to our families who have requested WIFI/internet,” Ponds continued. “Once finalized, cable modems will be sent to our families directly. [Montclair Public Schools] will incur the monthly cost.”
The district is also going to be partnering with the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence to help get students the technology they require to keep up with their studies remotely.
Montclair families can also reach out to LapTop Upcycle, a local nonprofit that refurbishes old, donated laptops and gets them into the hands of families in need.
Jon Bonesteel, one of the founders of the group, said that they’ve been busy since the shutdown started in March, and while demand for both computers and WiFi hotspots has slowed, it’s still there.
“We get a few every day,” Bonesteel said.
Where once the organization would do drop-offs onto people’s porches, now they coordinate pickups at the office in the United Way building at 60 South Fullerton on Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon.
Unlike laptops from the district, a computer from Laptop Upcycle remains with the family forever. The organization also replaces those that fail, even several years later. They do their best to supply more than one computer to a family with more than one student, eliminating issues when siblings have classes at the same time.
While Bonesteel said supply remains good, the group is always looking for donations of both equipment and money; those interested can find information at LaptopUpcycle.org and email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. They also offer volunteer hours for Montclair students looking to help out as well.