Thousands of anxious Chicago parents who want their children to join their teachers and classmates online during the coronavirus school shutdown are trying to figure out ways to make e-learning work.
And for charter school families, many of whom started remote learning before traditional public schools started on April 13, the wait has been even longer and the solutions more pressing.
Anayeli Salgado is one of those parents. She has five kids, with four of them at Octavio Paz elementary, one of 15 charter schools run by the Acero Schools network.
Salgado told school officials that she desperately needed a computer for each of her children. But after weeks of seeing her kids fight over the one Chromebook the family had, she took matters into her own hands.
“I bought two used phones for two of my kids,” Salgado said. She paid $300 for the two phones for her younger children. They now use them to keep up with schoolwork. But Salgado said that’s not the best solution.
“These phones are small; the font is too,” Salgado said. “ My son uses glasses and has a hard time seeing.”
Students in Chicago can do remote learning either online or through paper packets, but most families want their students online. Many families also need internet access.
Salgado and other Acero charter school parents are frustrated. It’s unclear exactly how many computers have gone to charter school students, but the latest numbers show devices reaching only 12% of students. Charter schools receive public funding but are run by private organizations.
But they aren’t the only ones waiting around. Many families in district-run schools are without computers, too. Chicago Public Schools says a total of 115,000 Chicago students need computers for remote learning. So far, only about half have been handed out. Those were existing computers from schools. This week, CPS says it is handing out another 43,000 newly purchased computers, with more coming soon. Charter schools, which serve 52,000 students, are not included in the first wave of new computers due out this week.
But Salgado said it’s been five weeks since schools shut down. She worries her two daughters who have special needs are already behind in their school work.
Acero enrolls a little more than 7,000 students, most of them Hispanic. So far school officials say they have distributed only 17% of the 5,500 chromebooks they have in their schools. The school says it’s worried it might not get all the computers back — and it won’t have money to replace them. It says it can’t be without them for required testing.
It says the cost for the Chromebook and licensing fees is about $360. Acero plans to fundraise to be able to buy replacement computers. The school district has said it will pay for replacement devices for schools but it’s not clear if that applies to charters.
Acero officials have been giving out one device per family, depending on the need.
“That strategy is not going to work,” said Maria Lopez, whose kid also goes to Octavio Paz, which is on the Southwest Side. “Each kid has a schedule that goes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. If we have more kids, we need to rotate the use, and some will have to miss class.”
CPS officials said they are working with charter operators to get an idea of the need at their schools.
“This is a citywide problem, and it’s not immune in the charter school movement,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter School. “We don’t have enough devices for every student in the city.”
Broy said his organization has told charter schools to call his organization if they need computers, and his group will reach out to CPS.
While some charter schools are struggling, others, according to Broy, are quickly adjusting to remote learning demands.
He points out that Chicago International Charter School, a network that manages 14 campuses, has distributed 3,000 of its own devices and purchased about 500. Network officials said the school district plans to give them 1,250 more laptops.
Other charter schools got creative. Some asked for chromebook donations on social media while others started GoFundMe campaigns to get more computers for students.
Acero network officials are exploring the possibility of distributing more computers. Meanwhile, Salgado is running out of patience. She said, in the end, the ones most affected are her kids.