| Florida Times-Union
Hybrid students in Duval Schools aren’t guaranteed a district-provided laptop despite spending multiple full class days learning from home. But teachers and parents say that the technology gap impacts in-person learning, too.
When Jasmina Brown’s older daughter — a Duval County Public Schools high school student — has virtual school days, she knows to expect a struggle at home. That’s because one of her kids will have to go without a laptop for the day.
“I can’t leave her my laptop because I need it to teach Duval HomeRoom,” Brown, a teacher with the district who also has a daughter in kindergarten, said.
But the problem extends to when Brown’s older daughter goes to brick-and-mortar classes.
“My high schooler has to take her kindergarten sister’s laptop to school on the days she goes to class,” she said. “My kindergartener misses her virtual classes those days.”
More: Faulty air conditioners add to COVID-19 concerns at Duval schools
More: Duval Schools opens Duval HomeRoom enrollment
As of the week of Sept. 14, the school district distributed 40,000 laptops to students both in hybrid and Duval HomeRoom — the district’s full-time virtual option, said High School Region Superintendent Scott Schneider.
“HomeRoom students were given priority because 100 percent of their learning is online,” he said. “But starting the second week of school, school and district staff began distributing laptops to students on the Hybrid schedule.”
Schneider said distribution was based on students’ “demonstrated need or hardship.”
But stakeholders say there are gaps in the process.
Amy Donofrio, a high school teacher who teaches all seniors said her brick-and-mortar students haven’t been provided with laptops.
“Even though [the students] are mandated to do virtual school three days per week, over half my students don’t have a laptop and they are failing,” Donofrio said. “The issue is inequity. Their grades this quarter will be highly based on having or not having a laptop.”
In-person school is expected to transition from its current hybrid schedule to five-days-per-week on campus by Sept. 28 according to the district. But teachers like Brown say that only fixes part of the problem.
“My high schooler is in hybrid. On the days she attends brick-and-mortar, Monday and Thursday, she takes her sister’s laptop. That’s because her chemistry teacher posts her notes online and for her to follow along with the notes, she needs a laptop or a tablet,” Brown said. “Normally [bringing laptops from home to class is] not allowed. But because of COVID-19 [relying on distance learning], and also the fact they don’t have enough laptops to disburse to students, they’re allowing them to bring their personal laptops or tablets.”
Brown added that her daughter tried to pull up the notes on her cellphone, but said the teacher won’t allow it, citing that students might use their phones to go on social media instead.
The Times-Union reached out to the district about students using cellphones versus personal laptops or tablets in class.
“I am not aware of any specific guidance shared with educators indicating that students are not allowed to use personal devices such as phones or tablets to complete their school work,” Schneider said.
According to the district, about 50,000 laptops were ordered in August with the goal of one-to-one laptop access for students. The laptops will be distributed across middle and high school students once they arrive. The district says the laptops are expected to arrive this fall.
Teachers say the wait for one-to-one laptop access is holding up class instruction.
Michelle-Meche Farah, a middle school teacher, is still working to complete baseline testing with her students as Duval Schools approaches its sixth week.
“It’s difficult to test for baseline with five laptops at a time,” she said. “Luckily, some students bring their own laptops or DCPS issued devices.”
The shared devices in classrooms raise another element of concern among parents and teachers during a health pandemic that revolves widely around germs and limiting shared tools. In private Facebook groups, teachers swap tips and tricks on how to disinfect laptops, keyboards and mouses without getting technology wet.
Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, where so much schooling shifted online, the digital divide across school districts is palpable and risks widening an already established education gap between those with and without access to lesson plans, class meetings and supplemental tools.
Roughly 17 percent of students across the country lack a home computer while 18 percent are without broadband internet access, the Associated Press reported. Low-income families and families of color are especially likely to be impacted.
According to The New York Times, researchers noted that student progress declined in low-income ZIP codes while staying steady in high-income areas.
“Some families have several kids in the household,” Jasmina Brown said. “When you factor in new students, I can see how there’s still a laptop shortage. However, don’t promise to get students laptops and then not follow through.”
The district said it’s working on getting everyone in need a laptop, but said again priority is based on demonstrated hardship as additional devices roll in.
The process to request a laptop varies depending on how the student is taking classes, a spokesman for the district said.
Current Duval HomeRoom students in need of a laptop should call their respective school while brick-and-mortar students transitioning into Duval HomeRoom will mark the need for a laptop in their enrollment form, which is available through a parent or guardian’s focus account.
Still, parents and teachers like Brown and Donofrio are put off by the district’s qualifier of “demonstrated hardship” for students to receive a laptop.
“There were no questions on the original laptop application to determine need or hardship,” Brown said. “My daughter is failing chemistry because she doesn’t have the necessary technology. Having to share her laptop with her kindergarten sister is unacceptable.”
According to a copy of the district’s laptop request form reviewed by the Times-Union, families aren’t directly asked to demonstrate hardship. Rather, they are asked if they have a district or personal laptop already and if they’ll have access to a computer at home.
“When the parent in that form says ‘I don’t have the technology and I need the technology,’ that is the declaration of need,” a spokesman said. “It’s by the parent’s declaration that they need that.”
Schneider with the school district said Duval Schools teachers were advised to create “alternatives to virtual learning,” alternate assignments and different deadlines to accommodate the students who don’t have their own laptop yet.
But teachers say that guidance puts the pressure back on them to devise second and sometimes third lesson plans around the same curriculum.
And for teachers like Donofrio, the clock is ticking.
“I have all seniors,” she said. “This is the last quarter of grades most of them will let you send to colleges.”
Emily Bloch is an education reporter for The Florida Times-Union. Follow her on Twitter or email her.