A conundrum: FL students must learn online at home, but not all districts and families have enough laptops

Florida 5th grader learning on his laptop at home during coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Laura Cassels

In late March, Pasco County Schools’ parents got news online that may have been a surprise to moms and dads as districts were launching at-home online learning during the coronavirus crisis.

“We already know that we do not have enough devices for all students to check-out. So, we have to do our best to put the devices in the hands of students who truly need them,” the school district said.

“There are some families that have a device at home, but they might have 2 or 3 children. So, we are recommending that if you have multiple children, we are happy to provide 1 device for every 2 children to start.”

Florida has closed brick-and-mortar K-12 schools for the rest of the academic year and students are required to finish their classes online at home.

But that task becomes difficult to impossible if students don’t have enough laptops and other electronic devices that would allow for a full day of learning, similar to a regular class schedule at a public school.

And the situation is more challenging if families have children in different grades, with kids trying to share laptops to do their schoolwork at different times of the day.

Not having basic tools and internet access makes it probable that students will lose instruction time and be behind in their studies come next academic year.

While the Florida Department of Education has partnered with educational service agencies to help fill the gaps in student learning resources, the number of electronic devices falls short compared to the number of kids in school districts, the Florida Phoenix found. And not all families have the money to run out and buy laptops.

For example, according to the state data, Pasco County Schools had 76,687 PreK-12 students enrolled in the 2019-20 school year. That students between 3rd and 12th grades, 58,767 kids, would be more likely to use the technology for learning.

But the Pasco district doesn’t have a laptop or tablets for all 58,767 kids.

Stephen Hegarty, public information officer at Pasco County Schools, said in an email to the Phoenix that the district has 28,500 digital devices, including laptops and tablets available to students, with 17,871 already distributed to families.

Overall, there are about 2.8 million students enrolled in schools in 67 Florida districts in 2019-20.

Before the coronovirus pandemic, districts likely wouldn’t have a laptop for every single child to take home. But now that students are supposed to be doing online learning for the remainder of the academic year, the devices have become critical.

The Phoenix asked the state education department’s staff for data on laptop availability, but they said each district is “responsible for that.”

Many of the school districts the Phoenix contacted didn’t give data on the total number of laptops or other devices available for student use at home.

In Hernando County, where there are nearly 23,000 PreK-12 students enrolled this year, the district has distributed just over 4,000 laptops to kids, according to Public Information Officer Karen Jordan.

“We have placed an order for mobile hot spots for students as well, but those have not yet arrived,” Jordan said, pointing out a lack of internet accessibility in some rural parts of the county.

Alachua County Public Schools, in Gainesville, has given out “more than 2,800 devices so far and that process continues,” Public Information Officer Jackie Johnson told the Phoenix.

According to the state education department, there were close to 30,000 kids enrolled in that school district this academic year, and many don’t have internet access at their homes either.

“A lot of our families don’t have it either because they can’t afford it or because current services don’t reach where they live, so today we rolled out our School Bus HiFi program. We have school buses equipped with hot spots deployed at 45 high needs sites across our district to provide families another option,” Johnson said in an email.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran earlier this month announced in a news release that 32,614 laptops would be issued to kids in mostly small rural districts in Florida as well as a Florida A & M research school.

The effort was a partnership that included the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC), Northeast Florida Educational Consortium (NEFEC) and Heartland Educational Consortium (HEC), plus three school districts that are not members of a consortium.

The Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC), is sending “over 10,000 laptops between the districts” it supports, Executive Director John Selover said in a phone call with the Phoenix.

The NEFEC – another educational service agency supporting schools – is giving out Chromebooks to students in its rural districts.

But “we don’t have enough for students to take them home,” Tracie Wilkerson of NEFEC said in a phone call. “In most cases, these additional devices will be deployed to elementary students who were not initially given Chromebooks to take home.”

Wilkerson also said internet connectivity is still a major concern for families. “Those who don’t [have internet], we are trying to find a place where they can go to connect to the internet,” she added.

“While internet access is still a major concern for rural areas, districts and communities are employing innovative means to provide service to as many students as possible.”

Meanwhile, Broward County Public Schools has an abundance of laptops available for its students.

The school district – the second largest in the state lagging behind Miami-Dade – had a total of 269,172 PreK-12 students enrolled in the 2019-20 school year, state education department data shows.

“Average daily attendance and engagement is at approximately 88 percent,” Supt. Robert Runcie said in a video news release earlier this month. “That’s good, but not good enough, so staff is focused on reaching out and connecting with those students who have not yet engaged or are not engaging regularly,” he said.

“We continue to issue laptops to anyone who still needs one,” Runcie said. “We’ve issued almost 90,000 laptops to date.”