As children continue their education from home during the novel coronavirus pandemic, they may be eligible for a laptop computer.

Gloucester Public Schools Superintendent Richard Safier has notified parents and guardians that the district is prepared to provide a Chromebook for students who do not have access to a device of any kind in their families.

“We have a limited number of Chromebooks for this first distribution, which is intended for families who have no available devices in the home,” Safier wrote in a letter to parents and guardians on Wednesday.

Those devices would include a tablet, Chromebook, Windows or Mac laptop, or a desktop computer at home.

Phase one of the Chromebook distribution took place Thursday and Friday of this week as the devices were made available for pickup by families with students in grades four to seven at the central office at 2 Blackburn Drive, between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon.

In order to do this safely, Safier instructed families to drive up to the pick-up site, stay in their car, and follow the proper social distancing procedures to ensure safety and health for everyone involved. 

The district’s information technology department staffers wore gloves and masks as they asked for the child’s name and grade and handed the driver a Chromebook. 

“So far, we have had probably in the neighborhood of 120 to 140 laptops picked up,” Safier said on Friday afternoon.

Phase two will begin next week as Safier plans to send a notice to parents and guardians of kindergartners through third-graders on Monday and distribute the devices by the end of the week. 

“Our IT need to prepare the machines and get them ready and clean them,” Safier explained.

Students in grades eight to 12 have already been issued Chromebooks to take home.  

Utilizing what they have

The district is using its existing inventory to equip students with the Chromebooks, pulling from the spares and loaner devices that are currently in each school. 

“We have carts of Chromebooks in each of our schools for daily operations and so we are using those because we are going to be closed at least until May 4, maybe even longer,” Safier said. “They aren’t doing anyone any good by just sitting in a cart in a closed-up building.”

As students receive laptops to do their learning, Safier is aware that some may not have adequate access to the internet to obtain online resources. 

He explained a deal that Comcast is offering where low-income families can get all the necessities to access the internet free of charge for two months. 

After the two months, these families can pay $9.95 to maintain their internet access.

Other city employees have identified the problem and are finding creative ways to care for their community. 

James Pope, the city’s IT director, is making his personal guest wifi network open to everyone. 

“So there are households in Gloucester without internet service, some of those households may have children whose Chromebook can’t do much without internet service,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “So with that, I’m going to turn off the password on my Guest Network and maybe some of you want to as well.”

He knows that this won’t fix the digital divide, but he’s hoping that it helps. 

“Maybe while I’m not home during the day, some kid can watch a YouTube video on photosynthesis or something productive,” Pope said.

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@gloucestertimes.com

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