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1 in 5 Orleans public school students learning from home don't have access to internet

An estimated 20 percent either don’t have their own devices, don’t have internet access or have neither.
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NEW ORLEANS — As New Orleans Public Schools wrap up a truncated 2019-20 school year and plan for an uncertain 2020-21 school year in the fall, the school district estimates that one of every five students who were forced to work from home during the coronavirus shutdown still do not have devices with access to the internet.

At a virtual board meeting Tuesday, NOLA Public Schools chief of staff Dina Hasiotis reported results of the district’s survey of students as it tries to make sure every student has the necessary equipment for distance learning.

The survey found that 41 percent of students had access to their own computer, tablet or smartphone at home. It also estimates that 21 percent of students got devices provided by the school district and another 18 percent were issued devices by the charter schools, so that 80 percent of students have what they need to do their schoolwork at home.

The district also distributed WiFi hotspots to help an estimated 17 percent of students get internet access, in addition to the 63 percent of students who already had connectivity at home. But again, that leaves an estimated 20 percent who either don’t have their own devices, don’t have internet access or have neither, Hasiotis said.

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She said the school board -- which oversees but has no direct management control over more than 80 independently run charter schools – is seeking state funding to purchase another 36,000 devices so every student will have one.

Hasiotis said outfitting students for distance learning remains crucial even as the current school year comes to a close. The district is working with dozens of separate charter management organizations to come up with plans for the fall for three potential scenarios:

  1. A full return to school for all students and staff, with accommodations for those with chronic underlying conditions that would put them at risk of COVID-19 infection;
  2. Part distance learning, part return to school to allow for social distancing in the classroom;
  3. All distance learning, continuing the setup that’s been in place since March 13.

Last week, the district announced that for the first time, all charter schools have agreed to adopt a unified calendar so they will start school during the same week, Aug. 4-11.

“In light of COVID, there may be changes that need to be made, but knowing we’ll be doing it together is a positive development going forward,” Hasiotis said.

Orleans Parish School Board member Sarah Newell Usdin said she had heard “real consternation” from charter school leaders about how they can serve all students equitably if distance learning continues.

The other major challenge will be financial. Several board members, led by Ben Kleban, expressed concern at the district’s dire budget projections based on the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s most pessimistic estimates of state tax revenue losses from the COVID shutdown, which were released on Friday.

The district reported it could lose nearly $33 million in revenue it was counting on for the 2020-21 school year if the auditor’s worst-case scenario comes true. Losses could exceed $10 million based on the auditor’s average projection of state losses from the coronavirus.