New Orleans students who need laptops and wireless hotspots to access online lessons during the statewide school closure will begin receiving them this week, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said Monday.

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced a statewide school closure on March 13. That same day, the Orleans Parish School Board approved $5 million in emergency funding for closure related needs. The district used that money to buy 10,000 Chromebook laptops and nearly 8,000 wireless hotspots

“Families in need of a laptop or Wi-Fi hotspot should contact their school principal or school leader directly to communicate their need,” a district statement said. 

The digital divide emerged as a concern early on as the spread of coronavirus forced schools and businesses nationwide to close and move online. The district’s items will be distributed across the city’s nearly 44,000 students throughout the week. Initially, Lewis said the district could only obtain 5,000 hotspots, but it has since been able to obtain nearly 3,000 more, he said in a Monday interview.

“Today we started distribution, so that was very very exciting,” Lewis said. “Schools that have a large number of devices, those were on pallets, and they are being delivered today. Other schools with a small number came to pick them up.”

Last week, Edwards extended the school closure, initially scheduled to end next week, through the end of April, in line with recent recommendations on social distancing from the White House. The state Department of Education also told school districts that high school seniors could finish school remotely. State testing, attendance and other requirements have been waived

The extension takes the closure within weeks of the end of the 2019-20 school year calendar for many schools across the state. It’s not yet clear if the department is considering recommending keeping schools closed through the end of the academic year.

An IT worker helps set up NOLA Public Schools district laptops that have been newly delivered to John F. Kennedy High School during a statewide school shutdown meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. Students will receive the laptops soon. (Photos provided by Kevin George)

Exactly which students and families receive the devices will depend on need. There are a smaller number of hotspots than computers. Lewis noted multiple students in a household could share a hotspot. Schools will either deliver them or families can pick up. Families should check with their individual school for that information, officials said.

Like most school leaders, FirstLine Schools CEO Sabrina Pence surveyed families about their ability to access the internet in mid-March.

“We did an assessment of families’ needs for devices and families’ needs for wireless,” she said in an interview last month. “What we are finding is about between 30 to 50 percent of our families need devices in order to get access.”

On Monday, Pence called the devices the district purchased “a game changer for our students.”

“Our distance learning plan is grounded in paper so that all kids have had access from the beginning but devices and wireless access make those resources so much stronger,” she wrote in an email.

She said the network is getting 1,119 laptops and 435 hotspots. FirstLine runs five schools with a total enrollment of nearly 3,600 students. 

FirstLine is still focusing on paper lessons and mailing work packets home to ensure that no students are left out of lessons. Pence said the schools had some online lessons but that students could also reach their teachers by phone.

The district’s devices are going to schools that requested them, officials said.

“This of course is an immediate response to COVID-19,” Lewis said in an interview Monday. “We also know that as a city we want to be able to look at a long-term solution for connectivity.” 

There are more than 355,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States and at least 10,524 deaths have been tied to the virus, according to the Washington Post. In Louisiana, particularly in New Orleans, cases continue to rise as well. On Monday, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 14,867 cases, including 512 deaths across the state. New Orleans accounts for nearly one-third of those cases and one-third of deaths statewide. 

Meanwhile, local charter schools are continuing to provide meals for students during the closure. The schools have served more than 119,000 meals across dozens of meal pick-up sites. Sites are open on Mondays and Wednesdays and provide breakfast and lunch for multiple days at a time.

The district also announced the ride-sharing service Lyft is providing $5,000 in free rides to and from meal distribution sites. Families can use the code ‘CV19NOLAPS20’ on Mondays and Wednesdays during meal distribution hours. 

The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission is serving evening meals on weekdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at several sites across the city.

“Computers, Wi-Fi all those things are great because it helps us facilitate learning,” Lewis said. “But at the end of the day I’m very proud of our educators across the city of New Orleans who are also dealing with their own issues related to COVID19. … They’re remarkable,” he said.

“I’m just very very proud.”

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...