By Gulnaz Ali
In March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, schools across the country started shutting their physical doors and began the shift to remote learning. More than 124,000 schools closed, impacting more than 55 million students nationwide. As we explored in the previous post, an estimated 15-16 million students lived in households without adequate access to technology for remote learning.
In an effort to help close the digital divide and connect as many students as possible, school districts across the country started procuring devices and hotspots to support remote learning. This summer, our team analyzed over 100 school districts from all 50 states on how they rose to the challenge of device distribution. We examined the responses from a cross-section of the largest school districts, the poorest of these large school districts, the poorest school districts as well as school districts who fell in between these categories. Per our analysis, as of July 16th, 2020, more than 3 million devices (Chromebooks, laptops, iPads and other tablets, etc.) have been distributed to students across the United States. Most of the districts we analyzed also worked to get internet connectivity for their students – by distributing internet enabled devices, distributing mobile hotspots to those in need, working with telecom companies to provide free or low-cost access, or even driving WiFi-enabled busses into remote or rural areas.
Laptops, Chromebooks Favored Devices for Remote Learning
As schools started the shift to remote learning, they surveyed families on their technology access and distributed devices. Most districts provided devices on a need basis, thus ensuring all the children in a household could have their own device. There were some cases where device distribution was based on income. The City of Chicago (SD 299) for example, prioritized schools in poor neighborhoods, and also prioritized students with special needs and English language learners.
Device distribution began by mid-to-end of March. Per our analysis, more than 3 million devices were distributed to students in over 100 school districts. These devices include Chromebooks, laptops, and iPads. Of the 25 largest school districts, we found that 45% of them distributed Chromebooks, with Los Angeles Unified School District spending $17M for Chromebooks; 44% distributed laptops, with Chicago spending nearly $5.5M; and 11% distributed iPads, led by New York City spending over $269M. While districts began device distribution in the Spring, they continued their efforts over the summer and are still pushing into the fall.
Large Districts Lead Device Procurement
Large school districts were among the first in the country to procure and distribute devices for their students. Not only did they have access to a large number of devices already on hand to begin immediate distribution, but they were also able to swiftly secure necessary funding, place their orders to fill the gaps and receive their devices in record time.
- Miami-Dade County Public Schools gave out a total of 119,000 devices. While MDCPS was lauded for its 92% attendance rate in the spring, students from lower-income neighborhoods nonetheless struggled to get online. Furthermore, on the first day of school, MDCPS experienced wide-spread technical outages.
- In a video update on May 11, 2020, Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner declared that nearly every student in the district had a device thanks to “a procurement team working around the clock to scour the globe and find devices.” LAUSD undertook a $100 million initiative to get laptops and hotspots, enough to “declare the problem solved.” We estimate about 500,000 devices were distributed in total in LAUSD.
- When New York City announced that schools would close as of March 16, 2020, the City quickly worked to procure devices for 300,000 students. Mayor Bill de Blasio assured families they would have iPads by the end of April following a conversation he had with Apple CEO Tim Cook. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said that de Blasio’s conversation with Cook was “a game changer,” noting that schools across the country were facing procurement issues.
Small Districts Struggle to Provide 1:1 Devices
Indeed, as soon as April, schools across the country reported delays in receiving devices. Smaller and poorer districts not only were dealing with more pressing priorities in March, such as food distribution, but they also had to convince school boards to secure enormous amount of unanticipated funding. Recent reports indicate that there continues to be massive delays and shortages.
- Detroit, the poorest district among the largest 120 school districts in the U.S., led a coalition of businesses and foundations in a $23 million initiative to secure 51,000 laptops for Detroit Public School students. About 90% of the students in the district did not have adequate tech access prior to the Connected Futures Program device distribution efforts. Device distribution began in June, meaning these students, unlike those in other large districts, did not have technology access in the Spring. Without technology access, educators made daily calls, reached out to family and friends, and even knocked doors and neighbors’ doors to track down every student.
- Donna ISD, a school district in Texas that sits on the border of Mexico and one of the poorest school districts in the U.S., was able to distribute 15,000 devices to their students. Another Texan-Mexican border school district, Laredo ISD, distributed 1,900.
Our analysis also noted that while large school districts went to great lengths to place their device orders, several small school districts did not face a procurement challenge. This was because they recognized the need for devices long before the pandemic, and thus were already a 1:1 school district, or were on their way to becoming a 1:1 school district.
- Farmersville Unified School District, a small district in rural Tulare County, California was already pursing a 1:1 strategy over a three-year period when the pandemic hit. However, district leaders hadn’t completed that process when schools closed in the spring. While they had 1,300 devices on hand, there was still a shortfall for their 2,500 students. The district worked with the California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund to secure an additional 1,500 laptops.
Device procurement did not stop in spring. Several school districts worked through the summer to secure funding from the school board and other sources to ensure all students in their districts had devices by the fall.
- Some districts, like Mobile County, Alabama, changed their learning arrangements entirely between the Spring and Fall. In the Spring, Mobile County handed out learning packets to students who did not have internet access. However, with funding from the federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the district was able to purchase thousands of Chromebooks and Wi-Fi devices so that all students would have access.
- Other districts, like Tuscaloosa City, Alabama ensured 1:1 access for grades 6 through 12 for the fall (with a school board vote for buying 2,200 Chromebooks with $750,000 in funding). Several other districts are also working to have 1:1 access by the end of 2020.
This fall, Back-to-School for children across the United States looks very different from that of previous years. Millions now have access to technology, in their homes, something that they did not have before. How will kids use these devices outside of their formal learning time? Will they use these devices to continue their learning after school hours? Are their parents and teachers aware of the variety of digital learning content the kids can engage and play with so their learning continues beyond school?
For EdTech content providers, there is an unprecedented opportunity to impact the lives of students from low-income families. We will explore these opportunities in our next post.
Gulnaz Ali was a Games and Learning Summer 2020 intern. She is a second-year student pursuing her Master of Science in Business Administration (MBA) at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.