School closures in Memphis over coronavirus concerns are highlighting a glaring shortage in Shelby County Schools: the lack of laptops and digital devices for all of the district’s 100,000 students.

With schools shut down until at least April 6 to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, district officials are preparing to shift to at-home instruction. But while some districts are switching to online classes, Memphis is preparing thousands of paper activity packets for students to take home.

Despite federal guidance to prepare for online instruction, school leaders and experts say that’s a lot harder than it sounds. Only a year ago, Shelby County Schools unveiled a goal to provide one hand-held device or laptop per student by school year 2024-25.

So far, the district only has 30,000 to 40,000 take-home devices for 95,000 students. Students living in poverty are less likely to have a computer at home, Ray said.

Superintendent Joris Ray at Wednesday’s press conference.
PHOTO CREDIT: Shelby County Schools

“This public health crisis has amplified the need for additional funding and investments to ensure we are equipped with technology — and that’s one-on-one devices — to close the digital gap and alleviate barriers to online academic resources,” Superintendent Joris Ray said during a press conference Wednesday. Students whose families live in poverty likely do not have a tablet or computer at home, he said.

While school is out, paper instructional packets for families that do not have internet access will be distributed at the district’s meal distribution sites on Mondays and Tuesdays. Bus drivers will deliver instructional packets to students with disabilities at their homes.

If closures from the new coronavirus had been limited to individual schools, the district was prepared to shift to online classes much like it did when Kirby High School temporarily closed in 2018, said Jerica Phillips, a district spokeswoman. But the school system does not have enough devices to make that shift districtwide.

“This is a great time to close the digital divide,” she said. “This is a shining example of why we need that funding to make that happen.”

Even if each student had a device, many would not be able to connect to the internet. Memphis had the nation’s second lowest share of households with internet access among large cities in 2017. In some Memphis neighborhoods, just 55% of households had internet, according to U.S. Census data. (In light of the pandemic and accompanying school closures, Comcast is offering free access to its hotspots and free 60-day access to new customers with low incomes.)

The district is also offering instruction guides for students by grade that parents can download from the district’s website. The district’s TV and radio station are recording instructional programs this week and will also broadcast live next week. Ray said families will receive texts and phone calls later this week with more details.

The activities will not be graded and are not meant to replace the instruction students would have gotten if school were in session, Phillips said. But district leaders hope the lessons will keep students engaged in school work over the extended break.

“For the first two weeks, we just want to get started because we know this is new territory for all of us,” said Angela Whitelaw, the district’s deputy superintendent.

Ray said he’s gotten calls from many Memphians asking how they can help. He said the district is setting up a donation drive to purchase more devices. Details on how to donate were expected to be posted to the district’s website later Wednesday.

“We want to go one to one, each student with their own digital device,” Ray said. “Let’s close this equity gap and this digital divide right here in Shelby County.”