The NOLA Public Schools district has purchased 5,000 wireless hotspots for students to use during Gov. John Bel Edwards’ month-long statewide school closure aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus in Louisiana, according to a district statement released Wednesday.

In the wake of his Friday order, most schools have begun teaching students online, with paper packets and phone call options for students without internet access or a computer. Last week, the district was surveying its 44,000 students to gauge whether families had access to the internet and devices. The district has not yet released a distribution plan for the hotspots. 

“I really appreciate the support for our students and families,” InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely said in a text message Wednesday afternoon. 

McKneely described the level of student need for wireless access across the charter network’s seven schools as “high.”

Coronavirus cases in the state rose overnight, increasing from 196 to 257, Edwards reported at a press conference Wednesday. Of those cases, at least 187 were in New Orleans. Seven people in the state have died from the virus, including six in New Orleans. Four of the people who died lived in the same residential retirement home in New Orleans.

Across the nation, more than 7,300 cases have been reported and more than 100 people have died from the virus, according to the Washington Post

The digital divide has emerged as a key issue in the nation’s response to the coronavirus as business and education move online to prevent further spread of the virus. Louisiana is one of dozens of states that have closed schools statewide. The New Orleans Public Library, a critical point of access for the internet and computers, is closed to the public, too. 

Internet access was one of many things on NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s mind last week when he asked for $5 million in emergency funding from the Orleans Parish School Board. And again Monday as he stood outside Paul Habans Charter School where parents were picking up meals, schoolwork packets and checking out computers. 

“If we’re going to move forward with distance learning, we have to make sure it’s done in an equitable way,” Lewis said in an interview Monday outside the school. “And we know that many of our families do not have connectivity via the internet.”

“In the interim, what most of our schools have done this far is what I call ‘old-school’ and have given students packets to work on during these first two weeks while we work on a long-term plan,” he said.

Internet access has also been on the mind of other district and city leaders. Last Wednesday, NOLA Public Schools district Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour detailed the district’s coronavirus response plans to the New Orleans City Council.

“This will become one of the asks of the city,” she said. “Not all of our families, especially our low-income families, have access to reliable internet.”

Councilman Jason Williams said he was glad she brought that up.

“This crisis shows the importance of making sure all of our kids have access to the internet regardless of their socioeconomic status,” Williams said. “Because if we do pivot to distance learning there are some kids who are going to get left behind. Hopefully this will be the spark that we need to address those issues.”

Now, that longer-term plan is coming into play. As coronavirus cases increase statewide and nationwide, schools are bracing for the potential of longer closures. 

The district has not yet announced how distribution of the devices will work and did not immediately respond to a question about such a plan. Cox Communications is offering low-cost internet options to families who meet certain qualifications as well. 

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...