A citywide campaign in Oakland raised $12.5 million to purchase computers and Wi-Fi hot spots to equip students for distance learning, but school began on Aug. 10 and many students did not have what they needed to join in virtually.
Officials said about 7,000 of Oakland Unified’s approximately 35,000 registered students lacked equipment and hot spots on the first day of school for a variety of reasons.
Those overseeing the tech distribution blame a backlog in the delivery of purchased Chromebooks and hotspots as one of the reasons why students started school without the technology that the Oakland Undivided campaign has pledged to provide to about 25,000 low-income students.
The nationwide backlog has pushed delivery of the computers to later this month.
To bridge the gap until the Oakland Undivided technology arrives, the district is distributing loaner Chromebooks and hot spots to any student who needs them for distance learning regardless of their income. But even the loaners won’t all be distributed until Friday, officials said.
The loaners are district property to be used by students during the school year. The Oakland Undivided Chromebooks will be given to students to keep as their own personal property, since the devices were funded by outside contributions that are being administered by the nonprofit Oakland Public Education Fund.
Oakland Undivided was launched last spring to close the digital divide by providing a computer and internet access to every student who needs one in the city, where nearly three-fourths of them are low income. The partnership between the district, city and the nonprofit Oakland Public Education Fund estimated that about half of the students in the city were unconnected or had a weak Wi-Fi connection.
The district and the citywide campaign chose the Chromebook because it is relatively inexpensive and meets students’ needs, officials said. The project initially distributed less-expensive hotspots last March when schools closed due to COVID-19 and began distance learning, but they had data limits and their signal strength was inadequate. The project then invested in higher quality hot spots with unlimited data.
Although officials said last week that they hoped to distribute all the technology before school started, they acknowledged Monday (Aug. 10) that that didn’t happen, in part, because some students were still registering or hadn’t been assigned yet to teachers.
Preston Thomas, the district administrator who is overseeing the tech distribution, told EdSource that 26,016 of the district’s approximately 35,000 registered students logged into online classes or meetings on Monday, which was significantly lower than the 33,500 students who showed up in-person on the first day of school last year. He said this was because many families were still picking up devices this week, since distribution was being staggered each day according to grade level for social distancing, and some students are having trouble connecting after they get their devices.
“Students are still getting devices and checking in online,” he said. “That’s going to happen through this week.”
Some students, he said, have family members who have tested positive for COVID-19, so their families could not pick up the devices. The district, he said, is exploring other ways to get the devices to those students.
Student Jessica Ramos, 17, who began her senior year at Skyline High on Monday, said she received a donated computer and hot spot, but said her internet connection was spotty.
“The hot spot is kind of acting weird,” she said. “The internet did not reach into my room, so I had to move to the living room.”
But Thomas said Ramos and other students who need them will receive a new hot spot through the project’s partnership with T-Mobile that should be much more reliable.
Both district Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said on Aug. 10 that on a scale of 1-10, they would rate the citywide effort to close the digital divide a 7 at this point.
“We have devices that are on their way,” Schaaf said, giving special thanks to Twitter founder Jack Dorsey for contributing $10 million toward the original $12.5 million goal in May to purchase technology for 25,000 households that needed it. “We want to take advantage of this moment to close the digital divide for good, not just this school year.”
Schaaf said the Oakland City Council is working toward a long-term goal to provide public Wi-Fi citywide, starting along International Boulevard. She and Johnson-Trammell said technology is as important to society as other infrastructure supports including electricity, running water, roads and bridges.
Johnson-Trammell said “there’s still much work to do” to continue providing computers to students in the future, along with the tech support needed to ensure that “families know how to use the tools.”
Tamonie Benjamin, whose sons Ja’Mon, 7 and Ronald, 9, attend Madison Park Academy Primary School in the district, said they won’t receive their loaner computers until Thursday.
In the meantime, the boys were able to log into classes on Monday and Tuesday using computers at their day care center, but they had trouble at first, so Benjamin needed to text her son’s teacher to get the correct password.
“It was frustrating for the day care provider because she had four kids she had to get on the computers,” Benjamin said. “And it was kind of hard for me because I was at work. I didn’t really want to be on the phone, but I wanted to make sure they got online because education is the most important thing. I hope this is not going to be a big issue for me trying to work and make sure my kids are able to get their work done.”
Benjamin’s sons have also been completing assignments in workbooks. They will receive free permanent computers and will return the loaners when the new computers are available, she said.
Teachers, whose bargaining team Wednesday reached a tentative agreement with the district over how to deliver distance learning, have said they worry about students’ ability to log into classes, the quality of the devices they are using, and the need many teachers have for better computers and internet connections. In negotiations, the union asked for a delay to the start of curriculum instruction for two weeks to allow time to check in with families and make sure they have the technology and support they need. Teachers also wanted time to plan lessons before starting rigorous classwork that some students may not be able to access.
“Many families are still struggling,” Bethany Meyer, a member of the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union, said Tuesday evening. “I met one of my new students today. He has a device, but no hotspot, so he was using his mother’s phone to access a Zoom meeting. I sent her information in Spanish on how to use her phone as a hotspot for his Chromebook. Teachers are happy to do things like this, but we do feel that if this tech support was being handled centrally, that would free us up to do more for our students.”
The Oakland Undivided campaign has pledged to provide tech support to families who qualify for the free equipment. And it has already launched Phase Two of its ongoing fundraising campaign, which initially set a goal of $4 million annually to buy computers and hotspots for students new to Oakland schools each year.
In addition, the campaign is considering fundraising for computers and improved internet connectivity for teachers who don’t have devices and connections that are adequate to conduct high quality distance learning. The group would also like to purchase laptops to give to graduating high school seniors to ensure they will be able to transition to college more easily.
Thomas said the district has purchased 550 Chromebooks for teachers who need them, which have larger screens than the student Chromebooks. And for those who need better internet service, he said “teachers currently have the option to work from their classrooms, where they get access to the district high-speed wireless.”
* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.