Mission High School. Photo by Jennifer Cortez.

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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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. Pretty much every student has a cellphone, and each can reach the Internet. Therefore, SFUSD should be shaping its online courses for mobile devices like cellphones. It can also use “gamification” to help create lessons and get messages across.

  2. From the look of things, by the time SFUSD mobilizes for online learning, the school year — and perhaps even the COVID 19 crisis itself — will be over.

    Be that as it may, the “upside” of the crisis may be that will perhaps reveal new ways of productive working and learning that might suggest that our current capital and infrastructure-intensive way of educating our children may not be the way of the future.

    Let’s face it, each “interest group” in today’s (public) educational system has it’s own agenda, the parent’s view K-12 in many ways as “childcare”, the teachers view it as a “job with public-sector pension security”, the student’s likely view it as “incredibly inefficient” and, in many ways as a ‘waste of time” and the general public seem to view it increasingly as a “failure with questionable results” and costly one at that.

    Perhaps more virtual/online instruction and learning would be better, supplemented with in-person extracurricular activities, like theater and sports being the only things that actual require a physical presence and, therefore, physical facilities.

    That way, a lot of the public funds that currently go toward both constructing and maintenance large school facilities and support staff, could be go toward making certain that each student has the hardware, software and high-quality internet access to learn remotely while at the same time collectively and cooperatively.

    This, in and by itself, might very well go a lot further toward preparing kids for the adult work-world than the current set up does.

    Now this approach most certainly may not work for all grade/age levels, but I suspect it would be quite educationally effective — and certainly more cost-effective — for grades 7-12.

    1. “A lot of public funds” …. not here in Mississippi … I mean California.

      Not all things are money saving opportunities. Education is expensive, and it should be. It is valuable to all of us. All that money spent on education is nothing compared to what we spend on corporate subsidies, tax breaks, bailouts, long-term public health and safety issues caused by reckless capitalism (not sure if there’s a different kind).

      Your point that many parents see school as childcare is probably not entirely wrong. When you have to work two jobs to stay afloat, you have a right to childcare. Childcare that provides instruction in learning, socialization, food, physical activity, and access to health and social services is a win-win-win-win-win situation.

      Anyone who doubts education is expensive should ask why some private schools charge more than $50k a year (the most expensive is Webb Schools at $66,130 per year).