By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Officials in the Clairton City School District had already started planning for remote education when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools in Pennsylvania closed on March 13.
They knew the district’s approximately 390 students in grades 6-12 had access to the Chromebooks through the district’s one-to-one technology program for secondary students, but not all had internet access at home.
Then there was the obstacle of how to provide remote instructions to the 400 elementary students who did not have personal technology devices.
So officials in the district, where 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, set up the Clairton Supplemental Education Fund on April 2, posting it to the district’s website and Facebook page and circulating it among alumni groups.
Within 24 hours a donation of $50,00 came in from the Fluhme Family Foundation. It turns out a member of the family is an alumna of the district.
With the donation in hand, Superintendent Ginny Hunt instructed her technology director to order 230 Chromebooks immediately. She was worried about a delay in receiving them since districts everywhere are placing orders. The devices started to arrive this week.
Those devices supplemented 100 Chromebooks Hunt was able to order with district funds when school closings were announced. The district still needs about 50 more devices in order to put one in the hands of all students, Hunt said.
“I felt very grateful that someone would think about our kids that much and want them to have the resources they need to be successful,” Hunt said.
But the generosity didn’t stop there. U.S. Steel followed with a $25,000 donation. In addition, more than $20,000 has come in via 150 individual donations to the fund, which as of April 19 stands at $95,000.
The money will be used to purchase Chromebooks or iPads for students and personal Wi-Fi devices for families without internet connections, said Alexus Trubiani, district spokeswoman. Some of the funds will also be used for maintenance and repair of the devices as problems arise.
Like many poor and urban school districts, Clairton could not afford to provide computer devices to all of its students before the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunt said it took five years of careful budgeting to provide Chromebooks for the middle and high school students.
Pittsburgh Current published an April 15 story about how remote learning is magnifying inequities in education. Among those inequities is the lack of technology and internet service in poor districts and communities.
As of last week, Pittsburgh Public Schools had created a fund in hopes of purchasing and refurbishing an additional 10,000 computer devices so that it’s 23,000 students could all have online access to lessons, which are scheduled to begin district-wide tomorrow.
Clairton officials knew what the district’s technology needs were when the school shutdown was ordered because it started a technology survey among families several days before the governor announced his initial 10-closure of schools. That closure has now been extended through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
As Clairton kicked off its remote learning program in recent weeks, most of the students in grades 6-12 were able to access lessons online and about half of the elementary students were able to do so, Trubiani said.
Some elementary students received technology devices from the district from the inventory of those available for classroom use. Others used devices owned by their families or shared Chromebooks issued to their older siblings.
But the other half of elementary students have been receiving paper packets of lessons, Trubiani said. That will change as the new Chromebooks and wi-fi hotspots are distributed, Hunt said.
Hunt said she is hopeful that all of the technology devices and WI-FI hotspots will be delivered to the district during the final quarter of the year. If not, the superintendent said, she expects every student to have a personal technology device and internet access by the start of school in the fall.
She’s excited about having one-to-one technology for her students similar to that offered in wealthier districts. And she’s relieved the district will be able to offer online remote learning to all students equitably.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the fall,” she said.