Remote learning has a new challenge: finding computers
This fall, tens of thousands of Delaware students will be logging into their classrooms as most school districts pivot toward remote learning in at least a partial form.
School leaders have fretted over the risk of returning thousands of students to schools while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow in the United States. A return to video-conferenced lessons is a continuation for how districts ended the last school year, but it also creates a new challenge: Keeping the necessary technology in the hands of students who need it.
Every public-school district in the state supplies either iPads or Google Chromebooks to students for use in their education. The grade levels that receive them and the ratio at which students in those grades receive them differs by district, with the highest level of participation being a unit for every student.
The conversion to remote learning has forced districts to establish plans on how to get resources into the hands of students at home if they don’t have a home computer – a common issue for many low-income families. It’s also led to shortages on the Chromebook, a preferred, no-frills laptop for school districts because of their cheap price – as low as about $250 retail.
“We noticed back in mid-March that this was about to be a big problem,” said Markevis Gideon, owner of NERDiT NOW, an IT and computer repair firm in Stanton. “It’s hard for me personally to buy 50 brand new Chromebooks today. So, if we’re having difficulty, we know the schools are.”
While he initially heard from organizations that were seeking brand new units a few weeks ago, Gideon said the same buyers are calling back now looking for refurbished units.
“Unless you made your purchase back in late February or early March, I’m sorry. There’s nothing you can do,” he said, noting schools nationwide are all seeking the same computers right now.
That national shortage on cheap computers has led to a surge in business for NERDiT Now though, as the business buys recycled computers in bulk, up to 350 units at a time, and fixes them for resale or donation. In the last nine weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gideon said that they’ve refurbished about 1,300 computers and are on pace to top 2,000 in the next few months.
“As fast as we can refurbish them, they’re gone,” he said, estimating his team of about seven people can redo upward of 200 computers a day.
Most IT recyclers generally just remove the valuable metals out of old electronics and then crush the remaining metal and plastic for recycling. Gideon said that he typically spends less than $50 to repair and upgrade a computer for new use though.
In order to ramp up production of the computers for the organizations in need, Gideon said NERDiT NOW took on four unpaid interns in addition to himself and one other employee. They were offered a free computer, training to get them into the industry and the chance at employment at his company. To date, NERDiT NOW has hired three of them.
To date, he hasn’t heard from school districts about procuring more computers for the fall semester that is set to begin in about a month in most districts. He has been getting orders for dozens of units from community organizations that run after-school programs for kids who don’t have home technology access though, he said.
“We we were approached by a lot of different schools in March and April, but everyone’s quiet right now so I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the next few weeks,” he said. “We know from these other orders though that there are kids who need them.”
Ray Rhodes, executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center, which serves minority students with arts programs, agreed, and said that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the “digital divide” that exists, especially for minorities.
“We found that 82% of our community did not have a computer or access to a computer. Many didn’t know how to use applications like Zoom. NERDit Now provided laptops to students and teachers; WhyFly helped us provide Internet service, and we also got support from Comcast, Delmarva, and Verizon. They were eager to help us without the “we’re struggling too” that many might have told us,” he said.
Cognizant of the need to get technology in the hands of families in need, NERDiT NOW has been working with corporate partners to provide it.
To date, NERDiT NOW has received $75,000 in funding from Discover Bank to pay for computers for nonprofits and students in need; $20,000 from Capital One for provide 175 computers to schools and community organizations; and funding from Barclays Bank to provide 330 Chromebooks to households in the Riverside community, with NERDiT NOW doing all of the rehab work on the units purchased and donating an extra 70 of its own.
Barclays has since partnered with Wilmington Alliance and NERDiT NOW to fund training of more IT workers and the donation of additional computers to city organizations doing workforce training through the Equitable Technology Fund.
It’s not just the access to a computer that is needed in homes, however, but also the internet. To that end, Gideon used part of the Capital One grant funding to obtain 50 one-year contracts from Comcast for its basic internet connection, with 35 of the contracts earmarked for the Riverside community.
The pandemic’s impact on schools and technology has only underscored a new initiative between NERDiT NOW and one of the city’s school districts.
NERDiT NOW, which is working to become Delaware’s first certified IT recycler, recently began a partnership with the Red Clay Consolidated School District, the largest in the state serving more than 15,000 students in the greater Wilmington area. The district is donating computers that have aged out of its inventory to NERDiT NOW, which refurbishes them and gives them back for donation to students’ families.
That partnership has seen NERDiT NOW acquire 300 to 400 desktops and upward of 150 Chromebooks to be refurbished. Generally, the Stanton-based company donates back half of the units it receives in donations and resells the other half to help fund its training programs.
“So not only does each household have a one-to-one computer device per student, but now we get the family a desktop computer so that every family can now have a home computer. That ensures the parents aren’t using the kid’s [school-issued laptop],” he explained. “It’s not just the students, it’s just not the parents, it’s everybody. We all need technology.”
By Jacob Owens