In LAUSD, 'Just About Every' Student Now Has A Laptop To Use During The Pandemic

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At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps as many as one-third of the Los Angeles Unified School District's students lacked both a personal computer and broadband internet at home — a major problem if the best way to deliver lessons is online.

But on Monday, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said a $100 million district initiative has secured laptops and internet connections for enough students that he's ready to declare the problem "solved."


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In his weekly video update, Beutner announced that the district's final phase of distributing these devices is largely complete: Nearly 96% of LAUSD elementary students now have both a laptop and internet connection and a confirmed ability to log into the websites that contain their assignments.

LAUSD high school students were the first to receive access to devices back in March, followed by middle school students. In secondary schools, LAUSD counts 98% of students as "connected."

"Just about every one of the students in all of our schools," Beutner said in his video update, "will be part of an online learning community."

A student receives a laptop computer for remote learning in front of L.A. Unified's Bell High School. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

MISSED CONNECTIONS

To be clear, Beutner said LAUSD will continue distributing devices. He encouraged any LAUSD family still in need of a laptop or internet connection to call the district's hotline: (213) 443-1300.

And though it's hard to know how many, anecdotal evidence suggests some families either missed LAUSD's device distribution, or were passed over by the LAUSD officials distributing the devices.

Stephanie Montalbo filled out a form on Dodson Middle School's website asking for a loaner laptop in April. Last week, Montalbo said her eighth-grade daughter is still borrowing a computer from a neighbor.

"I never got a call or anything," she told us in an interview, adding: "My daughter still needs help."

Soon after the LAUSD board approved an emergency declaration in March, district officials began purchasing devices.

"It took a procurement team working around the clock to scour the globe and find devices and a technology team to make sure the devices had the proper software installed and every student was connected to the Internet," Beutner said in his speech.

But with worldwide supply chains tied up, some families have still waited for weeks.

This weekend, L.A. Times columnist Robin Abcarian profiled two brothers in Watts who've been sharing their mom's Android phone to do their homework. Abcarian reported the two boys' LAUSD school is supposed to begin distributing devices this week.

Last week, L.A. Daily News reporter Ariella Plachta shared video of a long line at an LAUSD device pickup in Koreatown:

STILL 'AN ENORMOUS ACHIEVEMENT'

But in a district of LAUSD's size, Beutner contended there will always be anecdotal examples of families who aren't connected — some of them for reasons beyond school officials' control.

"I'd consider it an enormous achievement," Beutner told us in an interview. "We're almost there ... It's time to focus on the 98% ... who are connected and how they're beginning to learn in a different way. We'll continue to be responsive to anyone who tells us their child isn't connected."

Beutner also contrasted LAUSD's progress with the response in districts like Seattle, where public school officials initially resisted moving instruction online, citing concerns that disconnected families might have trouble accessing their lessons. Still, local media pointed to LAUSD's device distribution effort as a model — and since then, Amazon has donated more than 8,200 laptops to Seattle students.

LAUSD's Bond Oversight Committee has greenlit the use of more than $77 million in bond funds to pay for the district's technology effort — albeit with some strings attached.

That, in itself, is remarkable. Within the last decade, LAUSD's use of bond funds was a source of criticism for the district's ill-fated iPad program.

Since then, the Bond Oversight Committee has consistently blocked LAUSD efforts to use bond funds for tech projects. Members of the oversight panel have consistently said that because devices break easily and must be replaced frequently, tech initiatives generally shouldn't be allotted bond dollars meant for instrastructure improvemeents.

But practically overnight, LAUSD has transformed into a "one-to-one" district.

"This is a forever thing to make sure that students have a working device," Beutner said.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS FROM THIS WEEK'S UPDATE

Here are some other updates of note:

  • The coming budget storm. Last week, state officials released figures showing the pandemic has blown a hole in California's budget — potentially putting some $18 billion in state education funding in jeopardy. This week, Gov. Gavin Newsom is due to release a revised spending plan based on those numbers. Beutner urged state and federal officials to find ways to avoid cuts to schools, which he warned "will have a direct impact on young girls and boys and the life they will have. Children will suffer the harm most directly, as will society as a whole over the long term.
  • Special education plans being done virtually. Every year, the parents and teachers of students with identified disabilities meet to negotiate an individualized education plan, or IEP. This document, protected by federal law, is key to granting the student access to special services or accommodations in school. But the pandemic put these meetings on hold, leaving the parents of LAUSD's 70,000 students with disabilities in limbo. But on Monday, Beutner announced the district was making progress: more than 1,000 of these IEPs have been negotiated via Zoom. He said LAUSD officials were prioritizing meetings for students who were moving into new schools — for example, incoming kindergartners — and that virtual IEP meetings would likely continue into the summer.
  • Meals. "Sometime this week," Beutner said, "Los Angeles Unified will have provided more than 20 million meals to children and adults in need."
  • More summer school plans. Beutner also added more details to last week's announcement about summer school plans, announcing a series of summer enrichment opportunities on his Twitter account

Correction: A previous version of this story listed the incorrect LAUSD device hotline. LAist regrets the error.