When the pandemic forced students to switch to remote learning, families had to rely on computers to get the work done, but some families didn't have access. Two groups on Long Island are aiming to help families get the devices they need to continue learning from home. Credit: Newsday / Tom Ferrara; James Carbone

Mary Rivera said her four children have been sharing two computers to do their schoolwork. They all take turns, signing on and doing their assignments as the others wait their turn, she said.

Rivera's take-a-number approach to sharing stems from economics, on top of other troubles associated with this COVID-19 era of remote and hybrid learning. The single mother had to cut her full-time hours as a salesperson to two days a week in June so she could watch over the kids at home. She's also collecting partial unemployment benefits, she said.

"It's a lot of stress," said Rivera, 49, of Central Islip. "A couple of times, they've fallen behind." Three of her four kids are enrolled in the Central Islip school district, with another attending college.

Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Island districts have been able to issue computers to students, having spent millions of dollars to do so. But several others, particularly in low-wealth communities, have not been able to fill the need. Consequently, numerous students still do not have their own computers or access to high-speed internet, education leaders and advocates said. Some of those students are poor, some immigrants, and still others are just caught in the backup of computer orders that stretches around the world.

Across the country, about 4 million households with students still lack consistent access to a computer, and 3.2 million lack internet access, according to recent analysis by USAFacts, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides a data-driven portrait of the American population.

Access varies by race, the numbers show. For both internet and computers, white and Asian children have higher-than-average access, whereas Black, Hispanic and American Indian children have lower-than-average access, according to the nonprofit.

On the Island, some students are falling behind in their classwork, another sign of how the coronavirus has widened the education gap between the haves and the have-nots, education advocates said. It hearkens back to the days when some lower-income kids didn't get textbooks, they said.

Mary Rivera of Central Islip with her children, from left, Olivia, 12;...

Mary Rivera of Central Islip with her children, from left, Olivia, 12; Demitrius, 10; and Haywood, 12, in Central Islip. Credit: James Carbone

"It creates great inequities along the educational spectrum," said Bill Heidenreich, superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District who also serves as president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. "If schools are unable to provide students with the tools they need to be successful, it's unfair."

In his Valley Stream Central High district, officials spent $1.6 million to provide 4,600 computers to students in August, so every student has one, he said. Also, the district provided a few dozen hot spots to every family who requested one, he said.

Feeling the strain

Now more than two months into the school year, Rivera's children said they are feeling the strain. Olivia, a seventh-grader at Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip, said she has been struggling in some classes.

"It makes me feel sort of annoyed," she said.

The Islip Town NAACP conducted a survey in April that found 8,000 students in Central Islip and Brentwood did not have computers at home. Both districts have not been able to equip all their students with them.

The Central Islip district has distributed more than 250 devices to students but has 2,045 Chromebooks on order with multiple vendors dating to May and July, officials said.

Last Wednesday, though, was a good day for Rivera's family. They received a free computer from a local charity drive put together by the Islip Town NAACP, Technology for Families In Need, the Suffolk Police Athletic League and others, which handed out 100 new and refurbished computers, laptops and tablets.

So now the family has a total of three computers for the four children.

Jason Contreras, a senior at Central Islip High School, also received a computer. The 18-year-old, whose hybrid schedule has him in the classroom one day a week, has been using his smartphone to tune in to live classroom instruction and do his homework. At times, he said, it's taxing to watch class after class on a smartphone screen.

Homework was even tougher, Contreras said. On the tiny screen, he switches between screens as he researches topics, and then types them out using his thumbs. Glitches have made assignments disappear, so sometimes he writes out an assignment on paper, takes a picture of it and sends it to his teacher, he said.

"Sometimes, I get tired of it," Contreras said.

Barriers beyond language

The challenges can be even harder for a student who is learning English as a second language, said Dafny Irizarry, president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association. There are more than 40,000 English language learners enrolled in Island public schools, according to Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Without the devices, the students cannot attend class online. Schools have been sending the students packets of instructions and work assignments, and Irizarry said some teachers have gone so far as to deliver assignments and work to students at their homes.

"How do you learn a second language from a piece of paper?" Irizarry said.

Charities also have stepped up to fill the gap. Irizarry's group recently worked with the Long Island Black Educators Association to provide 20 computers to students in Central Islip. All together, her group, working with other charities, has provided 70 computers to Island families.

Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association, said schools in well-off districts often have booster clubs, foundations or alumni who contribute to help students.

Scott worries that some students, faced with these obstacles, could give up on public education.

"Children love coming to school. They make friends, develop skills, relate to adults," Scott said. "When they can't [get their schooling], they can become withdrawn, depressed and isolated."

Back in the spring, Brentwood, the largest district on Long Island with an enrollment of nearly 20,000 students, ordered 18,000 laptops. But it has received only about half, so it's still awaiting the delivery of 8,400 of them, Superintendent Richard Loeschner said.

"The supply chain is backed up tremendously," he said.

Many children also lack internet access, leading them to take their computers to coffee shops or libraries where there is Wi-Fi service. Brentwood also has ordered 2,500 hot spots to help students.

Yvonne Clemente also showed up at the computer giveaway last Wednesday. She said she's been splitting one computer among her three children, at times refereeing the disagreements between them as they vie for time on it.

"It's been horrible," said Clemente, 36, of Central Islip. "They're not getting the instruction they need."

She was able to come away with two computers and was happy for it.

"I'll be able to get them on track," she said.

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