Perspective: What about the Kids without a Computer during COVID-19?

            One of the first institutions to be upended by the COVID-19 pandemic was our nation’s school system. The Syracuse City School District was no exception. On March 16th, schools were ordered to close while teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and volunteers were suddenly faced with the unprecedented and formidable challenge of converting the rest of the school year to an online format. We spoke with Promise Zone Supervisor Raquan Pride about lack of internet access and digital infrastructure among students as well as the creative approaches being implemented to address those problems.

The initiative led by Raquan Pride put nearly 150 tablets in the hands of Syracuse City School District students. 

            Mr. Pride is a Syracuse native who has been working as a mentor to students since he was a teenager himself. “I started working with kids while in high school,” he explains, “whether just helping out around the Southwest Center or the Boys and Girls Club.” Those efforts led him to serve as a teen program director with Catholic Charities, a teaching assistant, a substitute teacher, a staff member at Hillside Children’s Center, and eventually to his current position as Supervisor with Promise Zone – a state funded nonprofit aimed at providing personalized support to students with emotional and behavioral problems.

            Pride and other Promise Zone staff quickly found themselves having to take on new responsibilities to better serve their students. They began helping by transporting workbooks and other physical resources from schools to students’ homes, which also served to put them in contact with families to better gauge their needs. “There’s a lot of effort being made on behalf of the school district and by the district themselves but it’s hard to quantify how many people need support because some people are difficult to access and locate,” says Pride. He describes how schools do not always have up to date contact information for students, which can make them hard to track down.

            Speaking with students and their families during the early days of the pandemic revealed a deeply rooted problem: many homes lacked the devices or internet access necessary for students to participate in their online lessons. “We do wellness calls to see if [students] have the technology and try to figure out a way to help them,” Pride says. “This situation reveals the gap between the haves and the have-nots.” For many students, the only internet-capable device they have access to is a smartphone – a device type that is not compatible with most educational software. Not only that, but writing essays or preparing presentations on a smartphone is so arduous that it borders on the impossible.

            The closing of libraries meant that students used to doing their homework there now had to find a new option. Some were afraid to come forward out of embarrassment or because they were afraid of being chastised for being unprepared. While Spectrum did begin offering free internet access to certain families who could not afford it, Pride says that this did not apply to families who had an outstanding debt to the internet provider. Unsurprisingly, this disqualified many of the families who needed this service most.

            Pride started seriously looking into how to fix this problem. In the past, he had organized hygiene drives to put sanitary supplies into the hands of families who could not afford them. He decided to use this model to hold a tablet drive with the goal of raising funds to buy 50 tablets for students in need. Pride presented his idea to Sheena Solomon, Executive Director of the Gifford Foundation, who pledged to match his progress with an additional 50 tablets. After putting out flyers, social media promos, and contacting community leaders, he was able to raise $4,400 toward the cause. With these funds, the contributions from Gifford, and some of Pride’s own money, the tablet drive was able to distribute nearly 150 tablets within the community – tripling their original goal.

            Despite the huge success of the tablet drive, Pride’s excitement is tempered by the awareness that the systemic failings that created this problem in the first place are still in play. “We are going to be even more heavily reliant on technology because now we have the data to say we don’t have to report to an office every day to be effective in the work that we do,” Pride says. That means more people will be working from home, which is a problem so long as many families and communities struggle to afford the devices and internet services they require to participate in this new economy. It’s wonderful that people are pitching in and helping out, he says, but we need to find long-term solutions to these systemic issues.