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Tacoma Public Schools warns that some students will not have laptops until January

In this Wednesday, April 8, 2020 photo, Colin Powers, 9, streams a math lesson broadcast by public television on a laptop at his home in Union, N.J.
Seth Wenig
The Associated Press (file)
In this Wednesday, April 8, 2020 photo, Colin Powers, 9, streams a math lesson broadcast by public television on a laptop at his home in Union, N.J.

Tacoma Public Schools, like many districts, will begin the year with remote learning due to the pandemic.

But some elementary students — possibly thousands — will not get computers for months.

The district told families that students in middle and high school will receive computers around the start of the school year, which begins Sept. 9. But elementary students, who number more than 13,000, “will get laptops as soon as possible, likely after Jan. 1.”

District spokesperson Dan Voelpel said Tacoma Public Schools has ordered laptops, but encountered delays because there’s so much demand globally. The district has ordered more than 11,000 computers since March, but only about half of them are expected to arrive by the start of school. He said some elementary students in higher grades will receive computers when school starts, but it’s unclear yet how many.

That raises questions about what remote school will consist of for elementary students who lack computers.

“We’re still working on it,” Voelpel said, adding that the district had invested time in designing a hybrid model that would have prioritized in-person school for elementary students and had to put those plans on hold because health officials have advised not to resume in-person instruction right now.

Adrienne Stuart has a son in elementary school in Tacoma. She said her family is able to provide a computer for him, but she’s worried about the families who can’t afford that.

“It turns my stomach to think about all of those kids getting left out and left behind,” she said.

A survey of 8,100 families by the Tacoma school district in April showed that 32 percent said they lacked both a device and internet access to do online schoolwork. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, about 62 percent of students in the district come from low-income households.

OSPI’s planning guide for reopening schools said it’s a matter of “educational justice” to invest in digital access for all.

“It is an example of inequity that not every student, educator, or instructional staff member has access to reliable connectivity or hardware to maintain continuous remote learning,” the guide said.

Voelpel said solving the digital divide and getting internet access for all students will require help from the state. He said the district has asked community partners, led by the nonprofit organization Graduate Tacoma, to help low-income families connect to the internet.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.