Jun 20, 2020 - Technology

Students face summer without devices or WiFi

Illustration of a teenager using a paper keyboard surrounded by colorful shapes.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the academic year ends across the country, millions of students are facing a summer with no laptops, tablets or WiFi access.

Why it matters: Without access to school-issued technology during the summer, low-income and minority students who are less likely to have reliable access to technology tools at home are at higher risk of experiencing a greater "summer slide."

The big picture: Many school districts are collecting the laptops, Chromebooks, iPads and WiFi hotspots they distributed to students in March, when virtual learning replaced in-person classes.

  • This is typical at the start of any summer, but runs the risk of widening the achievement gap this year, after coronavirus disruptions to class time are already expected to worsen summer learning loss.
  • "For schools who issued devices to fill the gaps, by taking it away, they're recreating those gaps," said Jeff Mao, CEO of EdMoxie, which works with school districts on educational technology issues.

Some school districts are allowing students to hang on to their loaner devices through the summer.

  • Washington D.C. public schools distributed 4,000 Mi-Fi hotspots in March and are providing that service throughout the summer.
  • Public school districts in San Francisco, Stockton, Calif., and Seattle are requiring graduating students to return laptops and hotspots, but are allowing all other students to hang on to them until the fall.

Yes, but: Budget constraints, a lack of devices and difficulties in contacting families are getting in the way in other areas.

  • The Wichita Public Schools Board of Education approved spending $24 million to purchase 24,000 WiFi-enabled computers and tablets — but they won't be available until the fall. In Tallahassee, Fla., the school board approved a measure to acquire 32,000 Chromebooks, but they won't be distributed before August.
  • Chicago Public Schools is making the most of its existing inventory of laptops and hotspots, which were hard to find due to supply chain shortages during the COVID-19 outbreak. But identifying and contacting families needing technology for summer school has been challenging.

Between the lines: While schools can do their best to get devices and hotspots in the hands of students, home internet service is largely out of the school districts' control.

  • Comcast this week extended free internet service for 60 days to eligible low-income customers, and is keeping its public WiFi hotspots free to anyone through the end of the year.
  • But many low-income students will still rely on a parent's smartphone for any connection.
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