The San Francisco Unified School District, its teachers, and nonprofit workers labored through spring break this week distributing Chromebook laptops to needy students. But by Wednesday, it was clear that multiple challenges remained and some educators doubted that the district’s online classes would be accessible to all of its 53,855 students when school resumes in mid-April.

At no time has the peril of the digital divide been more apparent, said Christopher Knight, a co-founder of DevicesforStudents.org.

The most recent statewide study by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2017 found that only 55 percent of the state’s low-income families had access to a broadband Internet connection.

The district scrambled this week to overcome that barrier in San Francisco, distributing Chromebooks at 12 schools and the district office. The schedule is here. Students should first fill out this form to request a device.  The district was also giving out hotspots, but it was unclear how many. 

In its press release this week, the school district said that it was “preparing both non-digital and digital learning options for distance learning to begin for all students districtwide on April 13.”

SFUSD estimates that up to 10,000 students need devices and 5,000 need WiFi access, according to a district press release. It handed out more than 5,000 devices this week.

In the Mission District, the computer distributions are taking place at Mission High School and Cesar Chavez Elementary School.

Borrowing a Chromebook, however, often proved easier than getting and staying online. Some students had yet to connect at all, and others who had both the device and a connection discovered their routers could not handle so many people online at the same time.  

Roberto, a senior at John O’Connell High School, was typical of the problem. He picked up a Chromebook last week, but this week, connecting remained an issue. 

“I’m waiting for an email on a hotspot,” he said. So far, none of the Internet providers he has tried in Oakland have connected him.

Even with all that the school district and nonprofits are doing, Roberto’s predicament is not uncommon, said Knight from DevicesforStudents.org.

While many of the major carriers are offering two months of free service, he said, an unpaid cable bill will prevent families from getting a connection. And that “free” connection might cost money if the provider needs to run cable. With the exception of Sonic, he said, providers are still charging to send someone out to run cable. Finally, there is the issue of overwhelming a family’s system.

“All of a sudden, in some families there are five people on, and a lot of routers won’t work, Knight said. “All of these problems get grouped into, ‘I can’t get on the internet.’”

Knight offered some solutions. In addition to residents going to SFUSD’s pick up points, Devices for Students has an online request form for computers and hot-spot devices. As of late Wednesday, the nonprofit still had 700 hot-spot devices, thanks to an additional 500 that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative funded. More, Knight said, are needed. 

Jay Pettigrew, also a co-founder of DevicesforStudents.org, is working with The Human-I-T support line to help families find affordable internet and tech support for setting it up. Residents can Text: 562-372-6925 or Call: 888-391-7249. They also support Spanish speakers.

The support team there, Knight said, will troubleshoot some of the issues like unpaid bills and consumers who are having trouble even getting through to providers.

In the meantime, schools are working to contact their students. But many have not been easy to reach.

Pete Wolfgram, a counselor from John O’Connell, was spending Wednesday dropping off computers for his students who live throughout the city. But he estimated that as many as 150 of John O’Connell’s 455 students could be without the connections or equipment they need. Already, he said, the school had given out 224 computers.

He too understood that students were having trouble once they got the Chromebooks. One of his students texted him that they were trying to call Spectrum, but was being told “due to high volume” to call back next week.

Here’s a quick guide provided by Clarity Burke, a teacher at John O’Connell High School.

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