PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It was back to school virtually for students in the Philadelphia School District, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Usually, back-to-school is surrounded by excitement, kids getting dressed up, parents taking photos but on Wednesday, kids didn’t walk to school, students didn’t wait for the school bus. Instead, students learned virtually.
But bridging this digital divide has been a challenge for many. At the school district headquarters on Tuesday, parents waited in long lines to pick up a Chromebook for their children ahead of the first day of school.
There are only three locations districtwide where parents can pick up the vital equipment needed for virtual learning: district headquarters on North Broad Street, Fitzpatrick Elementary School in the Northeast and Martin Luther King Jr. High School in North Philly.
“It’s horrible. They just want to go back and see their friends,” parent Dawn Leary said. “I heard it was like a two-hour line so I was like scared to even come down here.”
Now the district says these lines were not a result of a Chromebook shortage. The lines, they say, were a combination of pick-ups from families who did not get laptops last school year, new students in the district, as well as staff and administrators.
But the lines left some parents waiting for hours this week and they’re now questioning the district’s plan to handle the demand.
“I waited almost three and a half hours to get a Chromebook, and waited in the hot heat,” parent Nicole Figueroa said. “Why don’t you try doing a beeper method just like they have for the restaurants where these people don’t have to wait in lines! Not even water was even offered to us. Nothing. And that’s not fair to children to have to wait or pregnant women. Period.”
Meantime, together with the district, the city has been working on an initiative called PHLConnectED which will provide up to 35,000 Philly families with internet service at no cost until at least June 2022.
The city also launched last week 2-1-1, a helpline for families to learn about the initiative and sign up for the free service. All you have to do is dial 211 from any phone, choose option one. You’ll then be connected to a representative who will help you to sign up.
“We’ve been stressing the fact that patience is going to probably be the biggest thing you can have to get through this,” Monica Lewis, a school district spokesperson, said. “None of us have a playbook on how to get students educated through a pandemic. A big part of this is going to be digital support.
“There’s been 130,000 students that are logging on, as you can imagine. Everyone’s doing it at the same time so there is a volume issue in terms of our servers, so there have been some delays for people to get on. We are well aware of the situations and we’re trying to fix it so we don’t have those issues in the future.”
School officials say they will be working on the server issues throughout the night to prepare for a better start to the school day on Thursday.
Any students who were not able to log on Wednesday and also students who came to the school district’s headquarters with their parents to pick up their Chromebooks will get an excused absence.
CBS3’s Jan Carabeo and Natasha Brown contributed to this report.