In a city whose tech culture is rivaled only by San Francisco’s, scores of kids lack access to computers or the internet at home.

It was a quiet reality that predated the pandemic. Seattle kids without reliable Wi-Fi or computers could get their work done at a public library or on school grounds. With some exceptions, most elementary school students never needed a device at home to complete work, and the school district didn’t have plans to distribute them.

Now, with months of schooling from home still to come, the state’s largest school district faces a Herculean task: get computers and Wi-Fi in the hands of kids who need them. The district launched a laptop pick-up plan on April 6 to address that gap, supplemented by a donation of Chromebooks worth $2 million from Amazon that will be mailed directly to families.

No district’s response has been perfect, and some crises can’t be anticipated. But before the pandemic, critical delays in spending millions in taxpayer money dedicated to technology — including a 2016 levy with $16 million earmarked for student devices — left Seattle Public Schools less prepared than many other neighboring districts, even those with fewer resources.

This fact, coupled with a response plan launched later and paced more slowly than others, meant Seattle kids were among the last in their region to start receiving computers.

By 2019, three years after the levy passed, SPS had only spent $2 million of the $16 million, according to School Board documents. Then, in June 2019, the board finally approved a $12 million purchase that would allow SPS to give all its high school students a laptop by 2023. It was 60% percent of the way there by last fall.

Advertising

By the end of last week, Seattle Public Schools, with about 52,000 students, had passed out 1,000 of its own laptops. Highline Public Schools, its neighbor to the south teaching about 20,000, gave out 12,000.

“My kids are gonna be way far behind once we do get it in place,” said Keosha Williams, a grocery store employee who has just one tablet — and three kids in elementary and middle school.

Since the district’s closure, nearly a third of its students haven’t logged into Schoology, an online portal where SPS teachers post assignments, according to an analysis released last week. For reference, that’s roughly the same proportion of SPS students identified as low-income. The district also doesn’t know exactly how many students need devices. Some kids wonder how they’ll be able to take their AP exams with spotty connections.

Every moment matters. Many districts that started weeks earlier say they are already running out of supplies and struggling to find more to purchase, especially internet hotspots.

With every passing day, parents, principals and educators worry more about the district’s most vulnerable children falling behind even further than their peers with better resources. This was the very problem SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau sought to avoid by initially telling families that the district would not offer online learning at all.

With instruction now mandatory during closures, state schools chief Chris Reykdal recently compared kids’ right to connection with the right to clean water.

Advertising

As Regina Elmi, co-founder of the King County-based Somali Parents Education Board, put it, “It’s just the story of the haves and the have-nots.”

Emily Wang, digital learning specialist with the Seattle School District, brings a laptop out to a waiting parent outside Southshore K-8 Wednesday. Two teams of district employees were gloved and masked, and no team members who handled computers handled paperwork.  (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Emily Wang, digital learning specialist with the Seattle School District, brings a laptop out to a waiting parent outside Southshore K-8 Wednesday. Two teams of district employees were gloved and masked, and no team members who handled computers handled paperwork. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

The plan

In some ways, the slower rollout was deliberate, district officials said. To avoid running out of supplies, as Tacoma and Highline did, the district wanted to be strategic. Much had to be built from scratch, said Sarah Johnson, a librarian at Seattle World School helping the district’s computer distribution effort. The district also has to wait on supplies: some laptops are on order, and many of the district’s existing stock of computers were never intended to leave school buildings, and require an hour of configuration each.

“We prioritize proceeding while … having a plan that is grounded in racial equity and a plan that we can follow through on,” the district’s finance chief, JoLynn Berge, wrote in an email last week.

Over the course of several weeks, SPS is distributing laptops from its inventory of about 31,000 devices first to its oldest and most vulnerable students — those without stable housing, and high school kids who fall into one of the populations the district calls “farthest from educational justice,” especially Black male students. Their average login rates for Schoology hover around 60%.

It’s been all hands on deck so far, said Johnson, who volunteered at a pick-up site in front of South Shore K-8 last week. The district came up with a process to maximize social distance and prevent cross-contamination. Families either stay in their cars through the process, which requires a few minutes of paperwork, or wait in one of two lines outside the school. Employees are assigned either paperwork duty or computer duty — their gloves never touch both.

Distribution of the district’s few thousand hotspots will follow the same priority plan. The district will aim to get a laptop in the hands of every middle and high school student, about 27,107 kids. Then, it will assess the need for its 22,291 elementary school kids. (At least 8,200 will be covered by the laptops Amazon donated.)

Advertising

The goal is to have every student able to learn remotely, said Berge.

But SPS officials also say they have no data on how many families lack access to the internet or laptops at home — a figure even that even Los Angeles Unified, the country’s second largest school district, has been able to gauge.

Seattle is relying on teachers and counselors to survey their students for need and pass information on rather than conducting a systemwide survey.

“We have been working to audit the access to devices, etc,” SPS spokesman Tim Robinson wrote in an email on Monday. “The task isn’t completed.”

A city survey from 2018 offers some limited clues: Respondents making at or below the federal poverty level (in 2018, $25,100 for a family of four) were less likely to own a laptop (72% vs. 94%) or have internet access they deemed adequate, compared to higher earners.

Jacquelyn Jimenez, a senior at Franklin High School, attends one of just six Seattle high schools where all students have district-issued computers. Her parents cut the internet at their home two years ago to save money. She’s spent the last month using her phone as a hotspot, but the connection is buggy.

Advertising

“I’m just worried about how I’m going to be able to take this AP exam online,” she said.

Delayed tech

By its own admission, the district was far behind many of its neighbors when it came to giving take-home devices to all its students, or what those in the education world call “one to one.” In a 2019 survey of 42 districts in Washington state, many of them large, Seattle was one of six that reported that it didn’t give laptops to students of any grade level.

SPS had sufficient funding to change that. Seattle voters passed levies in 2016 and in 2019 with more than $150 million for technology upgrades. But efforts to spend the money on personal tech for students faced delays.

The district “recommended expanding device distribution a number of times, but the [Seattle School Board] was unable to reach a consensus until last spring,” Robinson wrote in an email.

“The district likes to talk about ‘Promises made, and Promises Kept’ when they do these levies, and they don’t do that when it comes to technology,” said a former district employee who requested anonymity, fearing retribution. 

Over the years, some School Board members and parents have been skeptical of district proposals to give kids devices and integrate tech into the classroom, citing concerns about screen time and fears that computers would replace interactive instruction. Disagreement was most notably on display last spring in lengthy and divisive public meetings around the adoption of a mostly digital science curriculum.

Advertising

“There were those against more screen time, there were those who want more screen time. Board members have a challenging responsibility to weigh all the information they receive as they make a determination on any issue,” said Robinson.

Rick Burke, a former board member who voiced skepticism of digital learning tools, said that frustration about unspent levy money is “valid.” But when he saw the district’s plans for tech, he recalled thinking at the time that the district needed to develop more standards before rolling out hardware. His biggest concern has been how younger kids would be affected by using too much technology.

“Was the board categorically obstructing because they were technophobes? Absolutely not,” said Burke, an engineer who finished his board term last fall. “We were advocating for a higher standard of procedures. We were trying to make sure this voter-approved money has maximum benefit for students.”

Burke voted no on the $12 million purchase last June because it would have affected elementary and middle school students.

Anastasia Sanchez, a district employee who worked on the science curriculum proposal, said she believes some community resistance to technology came from privilege.

“A lot of the pushback on screen time ironically came from parents and communities whose children already had technology,” said Sanchez. “They wanted to limit screen time because their children had screen time.”

Two-year old Fatoumata Hydara is more interested in a cellphone than the laptop computer her mother, Mariam Hydara, is picking up from Southshore K-8. Mariam, a high school senior, had been doing schoolwork on her phone. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Two-year old Fatoumata Hydara is more interested in a cellphone than the laptop computer her mother, Mariam Hydara, is picking up from Southshore K-8. Mariam, a high school senior, had been doing schoolwork on her phone. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Hope going forward

The devices the district has managed to distribute are already calming the nerves of some students. The district recently put in another $5 million order for laptops. Last week, outside a computer pick-up site, South Lake High School senior Mariam Hydara said her small Dell laptop was her ticket to graduate.

Advertising

“So grateful they’re doing this,” Hydara said, using one of her hands to hold her laptop and the other to draw her 2-year-old daughter, Fatoumata, closer. “It was impossible to do my work from my phone screen.”

The gaps have been noticeable for teachers of classes with low-income students. Elisa Yzaguirre, a language arts teacher at Denny International Middle School, estimates 85% to 90% of kids in her classes, which include many recent immigrants, don’t have a computer or access to the internet. In the meantime, she’s taught students how to complete assignments from their smartphones.

She’s staying positive and enjoying how much the situation has encouraged her colleagues to collaborate more to make sure every kid gets what they need.

“I know there are many complications. We could have had the technology sooner,” said Yzaguirre. “It took a worldwide pandemic to force that.”