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The Great Divide | Race, Class, and Opportunity in our Schools

Still waiting for laptops, some Boston students struggle to stay connected to teachers, school

Boston Public Schools employee Giscar Centeio returns with a laptop after nobody was home at a student's address in Roxbury.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Without a computer at home, Margalie Leveille worries her daughter may miss out on much of kindergarten.

Although the 6-year-old’s teacher at Franklin D. Roosevelt K-8 School in Hyde Park already has put lessons online, the family’s only Internet access is on Leveille’s smartphone. And she keeps that with her while working a daily shift, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., as a nursing assistant at an assisted living center.

A computer "would be good for her so she could connect better with her teacher,” said Leveille, an immigrant from Haiti. “It would help when I am at work.”

But the Boston school district has struggled to get computers into the hands of all students who need them as the city — and most of the country — embarks on a mass experiment in online learning. Estimates suggest that at least 15 percent of the district’s 54,000 public school students do not have a laptop or computer at home for online learning, district officials said.

The computer issue arose March 16, the day before school shuttered until at least April 27. Thousands of students were sent home with study materials and laptops (more than 13,000 total) assigned to them by their individual schools. But hundreds of others skipped school that day due, in part, to health concerns, and missed out on the computers.


A fresh shipment of 20,000 Chromebooks arrived in Medford on Tuesday, the day the school system began offering free bagged breakfast and lunch across the district. But numerous families who came to the sites seeking laptops were out of luck: The computers had to be set up with educational programs and apps, and many parents were told that would be available by appointment only.

Later in the week, many of the devices were ready for home delivery, according to Mark Racine, the district’s director of technology. But since that time, only 4,000 of the 20,000 new laptops have been delivered, a school spokesman said on Tuesday.


Visit www.bostonpublicschools.org/laptop to fill out the form to request a Chromebook. Families/students will be contacted via email and text message to schedule a home delivery. Families that have requested a laptop and have not yet heard back from the school system will receive an email and text message within 48 hours of filling out the form.

According to interviews with families and district officials, the reasons are varied: Some families don’t know how to request the laptops online, or that they’re available at all. In other cases, the district attempted computer delivery at an outdated address, or to a family that actually turned out to have a computer. In addition, the schools have limited staff to help with distribution.

The district is ramping up efforts this week, and asking teachers, parents, and advocates to spread the word. “If there’s a family that says I’ve got three kids and all three kids need it, we’re going to give them three Chromebooks,” Racine said.

Before the pandemic struck, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Boston Public Schools students lacked “adequate technology” — meaning they don’t have regular access to a computer or the Internet or both, said Racine. Now, with virtual learning already underway in the city’s public schools, their technology needs are greater than ever — including everything from Zoom meetings with teachers to writing term papers to virtual “playtime” for younger kids.


Leveille said that before the closure, her daughter had been learning to sound out letters of the alphabet, as well as colors and shapes. When the child’s teacher e-mails exercises for the 6-year-old to practice these skills, Leveille gets them on her cellphone at work. When possible, she relays the message to her 21-year-old daughter, who is home from college and watching the kindergartener.

The mother struggled last week to fill out an online request for one of the Chromebooks because she could not remember her daughter’s school identification number, a common problem for many immigrant families, said Junior Buissereth, whose organization, the Massachusetts Association of Haitian Parents, helps Haitian immigrants with children in the school system. As of Monday, Leveille had yet to complete the form.

High school students also are struggling to access their new online coursework. Some teens don’t have their Chromebooks yet while others can’t get online with them, said Jeremy Kazanjian-Amory, who leads after-school sessions at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs in the South End.

“There is confusion,'' he said. “I would say that a majority of our [Boston public school] teens are not learning anything'' yet.

Fifteen-year-old Ajdel Arias, a 10th-grader at Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park, is one of the hundreds of students still waiting for a Chromebook. He occasionally uses his sister’s computer to do his schoolwork, but she needs it to complete her college work.

“I have a lot of assignments” on Google Classroom, Arias said, speaking in Spanish. The family, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, lives in Dorchester.


He used his smartphone to request a laptop last Wednesday and as of Monday afternoon, he said he had yet to hear anything from the Boston school district. “I don’t know when I’m going to get my Chromebook,'' he said. His teachers, who have communicated with him through e-mail (which he can check on his phone) and Google Classroom, held their first Zoom meeting Monday. Arias participated through his cellphone.

The 20,000 laptops are being paid for through $3.5 million from the school system’s operating budget and $2 million from the Boston Resiliency Fund, a city fund-raising and philanthropic initiative created to help residents amid the COVID-19 crisis, the mayor’s office said.

Distributing the Chromebooks is just the first step in a herculean effort to get thousands of school kids and teachers across the city engaged in online learning, said Jessica Tang, the president of the 10,000-member Boston Teachers Union.

"It’s not just about Chromebooks,'' Tang said. “We also have to make sure that students have Wi-Fi, that parents know how to use the laptops and . . . get to the right links.”

A “significant number" of teachers do not have adequate training in online applications like Google Classroom, Zoom, and Seesaw to be able to effectively teach remotely, said Tang.

“Everything happened so quickly,'' Tang said. “You know, I think back to the last week and it feels like two weeks or three weeks. [It] continues to change so quickly and we are trying so hard to keep up.”


Boston Public Schools employees Mark Racine (left) and Giscar Centeio walk to deliver laptops during a dry run of handing out Chromebooks to students. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Bianca Vazquez Toness of the Globe staff contributed to this story.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.