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)

As Gov. John Bel Edwards prepares to close schools for the remainder of the academic year, New Orleans educators are still working to get much-needed laptops and wireless hotspots to students, one month after they first stopped attending in-person classes. 

Some schools began distributing computers the week after Edwards’ initial March 13 closure order. Others have focused instruction on paper packets, some even mailing them home to limit contact amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so no students would be denied access to instruction. 

Access to technology and lack of it — often called the digital divide — have emerged as a critical issue in statewide school closures across the country. While schools are using a variety of methods to continue education, state officials and education leaders want to find solutions to improve access.

“Distance learning is critically important,” Edwards said at a Tuesday press conference. “It is easier in some places because you have the infrastructure in place and access to devices.”

“There is a divide within our state. We talked about that with the health disparities. This is one of them,” he said, acknowledging lack of internet access in some rural areas and among low-income urban and suburban Louisiana residents. “It is something we’re talking about, how we can make an impact on this both in the short-term and in the long-term.”

Even though the NOLA Public Schools district acted quickly to secure emergency funding — the same day Edwards announced the closure — procuring, formatting and distributing laptops and hotspots has taken additional time

“There was no delay in purchasing chromebooks and wi-fi hotspots once a vendor with available inventory was secured,” a written statement from the district, in response to questions from The Lens, said.

NOLA Public Schools reported receiving 10,000 laptops over the last two days in March, two weeks after Edwards’ closure order.

“Once the items were received each chromebook had to be configured with the appropriate licenses and with the receiving of schools specific email domain,” the statement said. “NOLA-PS communicated to schools that it would take a week to complete this process and chromebooks distribution would begin on April 6th.”

Hotspots, which were received on April 8 and started going out to schools on April 9, also required similar formatting from the district.

“Wi-fi hot spots also had to be configured with internet filters in compliance with the Children’s Information Protection Act,” according to the district. 

Providing continuing instruction has been a priority of both the local district and state education leaders. Edwards’ initial school closure order expired April 13, but he extended that, along with a “stay-at-home order” through the end of April. Today, he is expected to close school buildings for the remainder of the academic year.

That move comes after acting State Superintendent Beth Scioneaux and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education officials asked Edwards to call off school for the academic year. They both called remote learning plans “critical” and implored school districts to continue providing services to the best of their ability. 

“This is going to be different,” Edwards said Tuesday. “We don’t want there to be more regression than is necessary.”

As of last month, just over half of districts were offering continued education, according to the results of a statewide survey by the Louisiana Department of Education. A second survey was due earlier this week, but the state had not compiled those results by Tuesday. 

NOLA Public Schools had confirmed that all its schools are providing remote learning. Most are using a combination of paper packets, phone calls and online lessons.

New Orleans Schools

On Tuesday, FirstLine Schools Communications Manager Megan Chauvin said the charter group had begun distributing laptops and hotspots.

“We have been able to distribute half of them to our families and are working to deliver the remaining half this week,” she wrote in an email.

FirstLine was providing all lessons via mailed paper packet and offered additional optional instruction online. 

At Arise Schools, which runs Arise Academy and Mildred Osborne Charter School, about 230 laptops have gone to families at each campus, Executive Director of Finance and Operations Kiril Johnson told The Lens in an email Wednesday. Local schools surveyed their families prior to the closure to assess technology needs.

The network, Johnson wrote, “began distributing our own chromebooks the week of March 16th to families that indicated that they did not have a device at home already.”

This week, they’re giving out an additional 100 laptops provided by the district to students at each school, he said. 

“We anticipate that we will be able to provide chromebooks to 100% of families that identified they did not already have a device at home,” he wrote. “We also anticipate that we will be able to provide hotspots to close to 100% of families that identified they did not have wifi access at home.”

Arise, like other schools and the district, are also informing families of free internet options from Cox Communications and AT&T for families that qualify. 

Plessy Community School CEO Meghan Raychaudhuri said the French Quarter school is also still in the process of providing resources to families. 

“Plessy has distributed over 75 chromebooks to students,” she wrote in a Tuesday email. She anticipated that the school would begin distributing 35 hotspots on Wednesday. 

With the state’s instructional minute requirements waived, the remaining length of the school year will be up to individual districts. But school will continue for now — online and in homes. 

“School isn’t cancelled, people just won’t be going to their campuses,” Edwards said. “We are going to try to do as much as we can in very difficult circumstances to educate our kids.”

Edwards is scheduled to appear with Scioneaux during his Wednesday press briefing, which begins at 4 p.m. 

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...