A Guilford County Schools employee refurbishes laptops. (photo courtesy of Guilford County Schools)

While parents were deputized as educational instructors virtually overnight, local education authorities have become the default social-service providers in a country that has seen the safety net slashed over the past four decades.

The glaring inequalities in our country and inadequacy of the safety net are most vividly illustrated by the gaping hole in the most basic provision of public education: the ability to provide instruction to children. Roughly a quarter of the 73,000 students in Guilford County Schools — the third largest district in the state — do not have devices that support online learning.

Guilford County Schools and two nonprofit partners — Guilford Education Alliance and Technology for the Future — have been scrambling to collect and distribute refurbished laptops to families. Superintendent Sharon Contreras said during a press conference this morning that 4,000 laptops were distributed during the week of March 22-28, and school employees, school resources officers and volunteers will distribute another 520 devices today and tomorrow. Guilford Education Alliance aims to raise $700,000 to purchase another 10,000 devices. If you’re a parent with a child that needs a device, contact your school. If you’re able to donate money to cover the expense of refurbishing laptops, get in touch with GEA.)

Contreras said the devices collected so far by the district and its partners are probably enough to provide one for each household, but not enough for every student. That means that in households with more than one school-age child, parents would have to stagger instructional time for their children. She said there are about 182 families in the district with four elementary-age students.

“We have to get into their hands more technology because we are going to be providing more lessons, more daily instruction for those students,” the superintendent said. “So, it’s critical that families have adequate devices and connectivity.”

Contreras said school leaders are aware that “internet connectivity remains a problem.” The district has set up internet hotspots in parking lots at 16 locations where parents and children can come to access Canvas, the district’s digital learning platform.

Contreras said the district received a $125,000 grant to expand internet hotspots, but she didn’t mince words on the need for massive intervention to ensure that vulnerable students don’t fall through the cracks.

“We need telecommunications service providers and federal and state government to work together to expand access for more students,” she said. “Without equity of access, we risk doing great harm to our most vulnerable students and families.”

It’s worth considering that access to the internet hotspots assumes that at least one parent can find the time outside of work to drive a child to a school site for four to six hours out of the day.

Meanwhile, Contreras said Guilford County Schools plans “to ramp up what we offer online,” and beginning next Monday “will provide parents and teachers with instructional schedules.”

Although the state has requested a waiver from the US Department of Education for end-of-grade tests, Contreras told reporters: “I suspect that teachers will begin to request assignments, and will start to make sure that students are on track, that they’re not falling behind.”

Whether that’s a reasonable expectation is probably another matter: The superintendent said she’s waiting for guidance from the state Department of Public Instruction on whether grading and attendance will be required.

I’m going to wager that even parents who are relatively privileged to have jobs with the flexibility to allow them time for homeschooling will find the scheduling regimen that goes into effect next week challenging. Online instruction “will never take the place of the direct instruction” children receive in school, Contreras said. “But children, as we all know, do much better with routines, so it will improve.”

Speaking as one parent, I toggled between listening to the superintendent’s press conference in the dining room and helping my elementary-aged child with her math lesson in the living room. Juggling instruction and work obligations are not necessarily going to fall into neat time slots, like 45 minutes beginning at 10 a.m. for math, followed by 15 minutes for “a physical activity break.”

While the district is shifting the major responsibility for instruction to parents, it’s assuming a herculean role in the provision of essential social-welfare functions.

Last week, Contreras said, Guilford County Schools provided 44,000 meals to students, about 700 of whom are currently homeless.

“I’m saddened by how great the need is, and worried that hunger will increase in our community as more people lose their jobs,” she said.

And earlier today, Contreras said, Guilford County Schools started providing childcare for school-age children of local hospital workers.

“This is a dire need for our community,” Contreras said. “Our healthcare workers are integral in reducing and preventing the spread of this virus. However, to engage in this work they must be able to go to work and know that their children are being adequately cared for.”

Employees of Cone Health and High Point Regional Hospital may drop their children off at Irving Park Elementary in Greensboro and Shadybrook Elementary in High Point, where they will receive childcare from teachers and school nurses. Contreras said the district is also providing childcare to homeless students at the two sites.

We now know who the indispensable workers are, and by and large it’s not those who earn the most money and adulation.

“We need to do all we can to support all of those serving on the frontlines of the pandemic, including school nutritionists, bus drivers, custodians and childcare workers, as well as our healthcare and medical professionals and emergency responders,” Contreras said. “And please don’t forget the truck drivers who are driving the roads at all hours to deliver food to our grocery stores.

“And most importantly, we need to do everything we can to support our children and the most vulnerable in our schools, neighborhoods and communities,” she added. “Talk about the importance of helping each other out, sharing groceries and necessities, checking on those who can’t go to the store or pick up their medicine. Our values as a people show during times of great stress and hardship. Let’s show our nation and the world what Guilford County and North Carolina are made of.”

This story previously stated that Guilford Education Alliance is accepting laptops. In fact, the organization is seeking donations to cover the cost of refurbishing laptops. The article also stated the incorrect amount for the organization’s fundraising goal. The correct amount is $700,000.

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