Some Christina students went months without computer access. Can they catch up?

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

For months, Ryan Rogers has dealt with endless glitches and frozen screens. 

Notetaking was a daily battle because of his laptop’s faulty stylus. 

Running any program for too long would cause his computer to freeze up in the middle of trying to get work done. 

If he clicked into another window while logged onto a Zoom call, his computer would instantly freeze and need to reboot. 

His frustrations are familiar these days. But Ryan is not one of the thousands of Delaware residents who have been forced to work from home since the pandemic hit last March.

He is 9. He is just trying to do his third grade assignments.

“He’d have to exit and reenter the Zoom call at least 10 times throughout the day,” his mother, Vanessa Rogers, said. “An assignment that would take a kid that has a working laptop maybe 5 minutes, it takes him 20 to 30 minutes because you have to keep shutting down the computer, reopening, putting in the password.” 

Ryan is one of many students in the Christina School District who, since the fall, have been trying to keep up despite having broken, school-provided computers that interrupt their learning every day. 

Some Christina students went half the school year with just weekly paper packets – and much less interaction with teachers – as the district waited on delayed shipments of Chromebooks and iPads. 

Over winter break, Christina received its last shipment of devices for virtual learning, and district officials said all 7,000 Chromebooks have been distributed to the schools that needed them. 

Ryan got his replacement computer in late January. Getting devices out to families has primarily been organized at the school level, district officials said, through a combination of drive-thru events and appointments. 

But there are still students the district hasn’t been able to reach, said Deirdra Aikens, deputy superintendent for the district. It is a challenge that schools nationally have faced throughout the pandemic. 

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In August, the world’s three biggest computer companies told school districts they were facing a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops. Christina got caught in the shipment delays. 

Millions of students nationwide still lack reliable internet or a reliable computer to take part in virtual learning. In Wilmington, advocates said some families struggle to afford even the reduced rates on hot spots and desktop computers that internet providers began offering during the pandemic. 

With schools serving students in both Newark and Wilmington, the Christina School District covers a wide range of student needs and household incomes. The district was not able to provide the number of devices needed at each building before the final shipment arrived, but said that elementary students were more heavily affected than high school students. 

Norm Kennedy, director of teaching and learning, said the shortage did affect all schools in the district. 

The very nature of a technology shortage means that low-income students have been hit the hardest by the lack of devices and access to the internet. 

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“Our parents can’t drop $500 on one device,” said one teacher whose class has a large percentage of low-income students. Delaware Online/The News Journal has agreed to not name teachers in this story, for fear of job security. “That’s a big investment. You’re choosing between other supplies that you may need, like Clorox wipes or internet for the house.” 

Christina School District announced Monday night that due to concerns in operational management, schools are going virtual until Dec. 4.

District leaders and educators are trying to figure out how to catch up students who went months with only paper packets – and little to no live instruction from their teachers. 

In Christina, about 68% of students are enrolled in hybrid learning, with 32% in the virtual program, Aikens said during a recent board meeting.

Having a computer is essential for full participation in hybrid learning – students attend in-person school two days a week and learn from home the rest of the week. 

Hybrid learners can also shift to virtual learning unexpectedly, as school buildings close due to COVID-19 cases or weather events. 

Throughout the school year, the district has adjusted attendance and grading policies to “help, not harm” student grades in the era of virtual learning, Aikens said. Still, failure rates continue to climb, Aikens told the board of education. Superintendent Dan Shelton called the failure rates “staggering” this year.

“The longer we stay closed, the more we are concerned about learning loss and recouping and restoring that loss of learning and time we’ve experienced during the pandemic,” Aikens said in an interview. “Having devices in hand does not mitigate that concern. But it certainly does give us an avenue to support kids.”

Throughout the fall, the district offered paper packets with learning material “identical” to what students got during synchronous virtual learning, Aikens said. 

But teachers still point out that a paper packet is not the same learning experience as live instruction from a teacher. 

“Essentially, that kid hasn’t had school,” one teacher said of a virtual student who had access to only paper packets until this month. “Most of these kids missed a year of school now. Half of the grade before [in the spring when the pandemic first shut schools], half of it this year. That’s a lot of time to miss.” 

Another teacher reported having students who rely on iPhones to attend Zoom sessions. Chromebooks donated by local businesses and politicians don’t always support the software students need to use for class, teachers said. Or they stopped working after a few weeks of use. 

Kingswood Community Center in partnership with NERDiT NOW delivered Chromebooks to families that participate in the center's Early Learning Academy Monday, May 18, 2020.

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The technology troubles of this school year affect students in all districts, said Kimura Anderson, co-director of West End Neighborhood House’s Youth Development Department. 

“With the Google Chromebooks that schools issued, they come with glitches, they come with broken buttons on some of them; they won’t connect [to the internet],” Anderson said. “The issue hasn’t been can they get it from the school. It’s been the quality of the Chromebook they’re being given.” 

West End Neighborhood House’s learning pods service about 85 students of all grades, Anderson said. Of those students, about 30 still have broken Chromebooks, coming from multiple districts and charter schools servicing Wilmington students. 

To help, the nonprofit bought 12 new laptops, eight desktop computers and six Chromebooks. Even with the extra devices, there still aren’t enough for all of the students struggling with broken Chromebooks, Anderson said. 

The students can’t take the devices home. If they don’t finish their work at West End Neighborhood House, they’re already behind for the next day’s learning, Anderson said. 

In Christina, the district plans to offer extra programming to improve “remediation, support and enrichment,” Aikens said. Starting this month, students will have access to small-group tutoring and chances for extra credit and course recovery, both in-person and virtually.

The district also has hot spots available for any family still struggling with internet access. 

But after months of these issues, it remains to be seen if the students will be able to catch up.

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. Contact her at nalamdari@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2312.