CPS buys 16,000 more computers than planned to help bridge digital divide, but says some devices won’t arrive till May

More than 50,000 Chicago Public Schools students still need computers five weeks after in-person classes shut down because of the coronavirus.

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Chicago Public Schools students use computers at a contingency site, James R. Jordan Boys & Girls Club at 2102 W. Monroe St., during last fall’s Chicago Teachers Union strike.

CPS is buying more computers than it originally planned.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

More than 50,000 Chicago Public Schools students still need computers five weeks after in-person classes shut down because of the coronavirus, leaving one in seven kids unable to access online educational materials as the second week of remote learning forges ahead.

Efforts have been underway for weeks to bridge that technological divide, but the process has been a slow churn.

CPS officials said at a virtual Board of Education meeting Wednesday that almost 55,000 devices had been handed out by the middle of this week, with another 6,400 given out at charter schools. That leaves a wide gap, as CPS has estimated 115,000 students need a computer, and likely a similar amount need access to the internet.

Almost all the devices distributed so far were among 65,000 that were already in schools and are expected to be handed out over the next week.

CPS has separately purchased 53,000 additional devices, up from an initial pledge to buy 37,000 once a greater need was determined. Those include 31,300 Chromebooks, 16,700 iPads and 5,000 Windows laptops. About 43,000 of those computers have arrived and are being sent out this week to 155 schools that have been selected to receive the first batch. The rest aren’t expected to come until sometime in May.

Board of Education members were briefed on details of the anticipated spending on the devices and other COVID-19 response costs not yet shared with the public, which apparently included about $16.5 million on technology or about half the $32 million the pandemic has so far cost the schools system. For instance, CPS planned to spend $6.5 million on 25,000 Chromebooks, $2.5 million on 6,000 iPads and $4.8 million on Windows-based laptops.

The district also set up an IT hotline for families receiving the devices. Almost 1,500 requests were fielded last week, most of which have been serviced already.

“This is a problem that has existed before this crisis,” CPS Chief Information Officer Phil DiBartolo said during the second Board of Ed meeting to be streamed live online.

“I would be derelict if I told you every student who needed access is going to get it,” DiBartolo said. “There is no finish line here and we are going to push as hard as we can push.”

Internet access is an even more difficult problem to navigate, DiBartolo said.

So far, CPS has offered 12,000 mobile hotspot devices to the district’s students experiencing homelessness. For the rest, officials have pointed to internet providers who are offering 60 days of free services to families in need.

But families have faced barriers to signing up for those programs, such as a lack of information, nonexistent credit history, no social security number for undocumented residents or fear of having a worker enter their home during a public health emergency to set up the service.

So advocates and families have called on CPS to offer more hotspots, but DiBartolo said that’s a challenge because CPS doesn’t have the same number of existing mobile hotspot devices as it did computers. Almost the entirety of the 115,000 internet devices needed would have to be purchased, and those resources simply aren’t available, he said.

The reasons for that shortage include last year’s tariff war between the United States and China and reduced manufacturing in China during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. And even with production picking up in China as the country starts to reopen, the first internet devices that arrive in the United States will likely go to hospitals and first responders, who will be the priority.

For those reasons, Board of Education President Miguel del Valle called on city and state leaders to urge internet providers to contribute more resources to helping families in need.

“We need the private sector to give more than what they’ve given so far,” del Valle said.

“ ... I urge the city and the state to strongly encourage these internet service providers to service our families so that we don’t end up with students that will never have access to the internet at home because of the inability to qualify or to follow whatever steps of procedures are required.”

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick

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