A third of families in New Orleans do not have internet access at home. Among families making under $20,000 yearly, 55% lack home internet.
The majority of our public school students are economically disadvantaged, and many of them lack internet access or computers. So when COVID-19 hit New Orleans and school buildings closed, not all children could begin online distance learning. There was an instant, significant disparity: some students experienced rich, interactive lessons with their peers through live video platforms, and others learned through a mix of paper packets and weekly telephone calls with their teachers.
Students had worked hard all year to make academic progress, and now, they might fall behind simply because their family could not afford to get online. Seniors struggled to type college scholarship essays on their phones. While some elementary school students were able to have “recess” through Google Hangout to release stress and find social connection, others found themselves both physically and technologically cut off from their friends. Teachers could not look all their students in their eyes and tell them that they missed them or that they were doing a good job.
Our schools and our district knew we needed urgent change. NOLA Public Schools immediately purchased thousands of Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots for schools to distribute to students that needed them. Within three weeks of school buildings closing, NOLA-PS was handing off technology to schools. Today, many more students citywide can connect to video chats, online lessons, and more.
At New Schools for New Orleans, we established the New Orleans Technology Access Fund to offset the significant cost of NOLA-PS’ purchases. When donors contribute, they take a stand for equity and access. We spoke to two charter networks, KIPP New Orleans and FirstLine Schools, and one single-site elementary school, Homer Plessy Community School, to learn what this technology has meant for them.
KIPP New Orleans Schools
KIPP New Orleans Schools was able to distribute Chromebooks and hotspots from NOLA-PS to students that needed them. This has enabled students to access virtual learning opportunities, like class held over video chat.
“Rich and rigorous teaching is a pillar of KIPP New Orleans Schools. During these unprecedented times where we must stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is important that our students can continue to receive a quality education. Our students and teachers are grateful for access to technology and computers because it allows everyone to stay connected.
Our students and families are extremely appreciative. The reality of the situation is that not every family is fortunate enough to have access to certain technologies. It feels good to support our families in this way; we are grateful for the support of NOLA Public Schools.”
– KIPP New Orleans Schools
In order to ensure access to all from the start, FirstLine Schools began with a paper-based distance learning plan for students. Their “low-tech” plan received recognition from the state, but they feel that the new technology from NOLA-PS will transform their students’ experience.
“The devices that NOLA-PS purchased for schools are a game-changer for our students. Now, they can access more educational materials and have more chances to interact with teachers and fellow students. This technology provides students with an additional means of engaging in learning and staying connected to their classroom community, and the reaction we have received from families has been very positive.”
– Sabrina Pence, CEO, Firstline Schools
Homer Plessy Community School
Homer Plessy Community School began preparing for distance learning several weeks before campuses closed. The Chromebooks and hotspots from NOLA-PS meant that online learning would be accessible to the entire Plessy community.
“Receiving this technology feels like a real boost for our families that truly need it, now more than ever before. Our families feel relief. Being able to see and hear their teachers and classmates has been extremely positive for our students’ state of mind. Even though they are separated by challenging circumstances, they know they are not alone in this unique situation.
Under these new circumstances, technology is not only a tool for learning, it’s a vehicle for our staff to stay connected with students on a human level, to give them some semblance of forward momentum in difficult times. Not only have students been able to communicate with each other, they are learning through technology, which is a life skill in itself. We are hoping that we can expand the opportunities for classes and clubs in the future by utilizing online learning.”
– Meghan Raychaudhuri, Head of School, Homer Plessy Community School
This moment has exposed the digital divide in our city, but it did not create it. We must work to close this gap beyond the circumstance of a global disaster. Even during the best of times, students have papers to type and research to conduct. They want to email questions to their teachers and collaborate on projects with their classmates. Without equal access to technology, some students cannot do these things at home. Because of a crisis, many more students got the resources they deserved, but we should have equity in times of calm as well. Taking action now allows us to look ahead as well, and consider how we can right these scales in the future.
Those who want to help expand students’ access to technology and make sure every child can connect can go to https://newschoolsforneworleans.org/donate/ to contribute.