This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Long lines, pelting rain, and an early cutoff meant frustration for students and families seeking laptops at Philadelphia School District headquarters on Tuesday.
“You told us it was open until 4 o’clock, and I got here at 2, and you won’t let me in? It doesn’t make sense,” said Aminata Welcome, mother of three District students.
“I’m tired of this,” said Shareeda Riggins, a parent who also arrived around 2 p.m. with a laptop that needed repairs, only to be turned away. “It’s horrible.”
After handing out thousands of Chromebooks at individual schools last week, District officials relocated their laptop distribution program to two central locations this week – the central office at 440 N. Broad St. and Fitzpatrick Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia. The number of students who still need laptops is unknown, but the District’s goal is for all to take part in its newly launched online learning programs. Officially, this week’s laptop distribution is to last from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday at both locations.
But on Tuesday, for the second day in a row, parents who arrived at District headquarters by mid-afternoon were told to come back the following day.
Tuesday’s laptop lines started forming early, parents and security guards said. By mid-day, they still wrapped around both sides of District headquarters, with parents spaced several feet apart, almost all wearing masks. But about 2 p.m., after a short and intense cloudburst that drove the waiting families to crowd together to seek cover, security guards let the full group inside, then closed the outdoor line for the day. Guards then told later arrivals that staff members inside had their hands full and that they should come back early on Wednesday.
Guards also told those later arrivals that lines in the days to come would most likely be cut off again by 2 p.m. as officials work to process the hundreds who are already lined up.
“Get here by 7, 7:30,” one security guard told late-arriving families. “The line starts early!”
Tuesday’s surprise cutoff left some parents frustrated. Welcome, who traveled from Southwest Philadelphia, said the District needed to be better prepared.
“You know how many parents are there and how many children need these computers, and you’re turning people away?” she said as she stood in the drizzle in front of District headquarters. “You need more staff to make sure they process things as they should, so everybody gets what they’re supposed to get.”
Zagora Martin, grandparent to four District students, said, “I’m too old to stand in line for my grandkids to wait to go in there.”
Grandparent Zagora Martin was turned away from District headquarters on Tuesday. “I’m too old to stand in line for my grandkids to wait to go in there.” She said it was her second time coming back. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)
Martin said she first came to District headquarters on Monday, only to be deterred by the long wait. Her second trip on Tuesday was also fruitless.
“The sign says 9 a.m.-4 p.m. See what time it is? 2:37!” said Martin. “And they say you can’t come in? That’s ridiculous!”
Martin said she’s already obtained two laptops for two of her four grandchildren from their school, Martha Washington Elementary. But she said the school told her it had limits on how many laptops it could give to a single family and that to get any more she needed to go downtown.
“They said I had to come down here because they didn’t have any more at the school, because they’re trying to get at least one per family,” Martin said. “So I came down here for [my] 5th grader and the 1st grader, and this is what we get? It’s not fair.”
Prior to Tuesday’s early cutoff, hundreds of families apparently successfully obtained computers. District officials say that complete distribution numbers aren’t yet available, but families and security guards on the scene at District headquarters said the lines for laptops are starting early and at times stretch around both sides of District headquarters. At the time of Tuesday’s 2 p.m. cutoff, security guards said that about 200 people were still inside.
Families who braved Tuesday’s laptop line said that once inside, the distribution process was calm and orderly, but barebones. Parents and students are given laptops and some very basic guidance, they said, but little else.
“They told me that if it had any problems, call the number on the box. I didn’t really get any instructions other than that,” said Jared Martinez, a sophomore at Hill-Freedman World Academy in Mount Airy.
“The hardest part is this line here,” said parent Kenneth Rodgers, who picked up a machine for his son, a Sayre High senior. “Once you get in, they get you in and out.”
Official hours unchanged
District officials say the official plan remains unchanged, with distribution scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Center City and Northeast Philadelphia sites.
District spokesperson Monica Lewis said that the 2 p.m. cutoff described by security guards is not official policy. But families should err on the side of caution, she said. “We encourage people to come as early as possible,” said Lewis.
Lewis said the District does not yet have a precise estimate of the District’s full laptop deficit. But she said that if more students need them after this week’s distribution is complete, the District will adjust its plans.
“We are committed to doing this every day until each child gets what they need,” said Lewis. “If we need to add additional days … we’ll go as long as we have to.”
Families face hard times
Many parents visiting District headquarters said that their children would be depending on the District’s devices to take part in online learning.
Welcome, the parent of three, said she had no choice but to make the trek to 440, and she would come back Wednesday. A computer is essential, she said, but she doesn’t have one.
“It’s going to be useful because I ain’t got no computer – they’re doing their homework on the phone,” Welcome said.
Martinez, the Hill-Freedman sophomore, is glad to have his own computer, but said his school is still working out the bugs in its online learning program.
“I get like five emails about homework at 12 at night,” he said. “They put the work up on Google Classroom, so why am I getting emails at midnight?”
But what he misses most about school, he said, is school itself.
“I don’t really like being at home,” Martinez said. “There’s stuff to do, but when you’re stuck home, you’re repeating the same things over and over again.”
Among the biggest losses: He was supposed to spend this spring working on his musical skills, as part of Hill-Freedman’s award-winning drumline group.
“I was supposed to be doing competition season, maybe college seasons,” Martinez said. “Was supposed to be doing track, too. It’s a loss.”
But if traditional school is out, the parents at 440 N. Broad said that a decent online education is the next best thing. Patricia Webster waited two hours to get her son a laptop. Right now he’s having fun, she said, but she needs him and the District alike to get serious.
“He’s home playing his games, so it’s OK,” said Webster. “But it’s time for back to school now. I hope he gets the rest of the education he’s supposed to get, so he can get to the next grade.”
How many students and families need laptops is unclear. Lewis, the District spokesperson, said that the District is “tracking numbers as we speak.” For the initial school-based laptop distribution held last week, she said, the District asked individual schools to assess their own needs. The current phase is revealing more about the demand for laptops, Lewis said, and the District is trying to match that to available resources.
“We hope by the end of the week to have a better number about how many were distributed and how many are needed,” Lewis said.
What’s clear from a visit to a distribution site is that for some parents, the laptops available here are a lifeline. Marquita Williams, a parent of two from Strawberry Mansion, said she has no computer of her own. But her first trip to get one on Monday proved futile, as did her second, on Tuesday.
“I got turned away; they said the staff inside was ‘exhausted.’ I said, OK,” Williams said. “So I came back today, and it’s the same treatment.”
Students and families in her North Philadelphia neighborhood are chafing at being “cooped up” all day, Williams said. The streets are quiet, she said, but parents and children alike are feeling the stress.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s a headache. Everything is calm, but all the kids in the neighborhood are going through the same thing,” she said.
One benefit of the laptops is that they’ll give some parents and guardians a break.
Shareeda Riggins, grandmother of a student at Furness High School, said with a laugh that the hardest thing about the shutdown so far is “having my son home all day.” The young man loved his school and his teachers, Riggins said, and being stuck in the house all day doesn’t suit him. His laptop will give him something constructive to do while the adults in the household deal with the problems that come with the loss of work and money.
“Nobody’s working. Everybody’s home,” Riggins said.
Those sorts of strains are growing in Philadelphia students’ homes, parents said, as money gets tighter, and the future of the coronavirus shutdown remains cloudy.
“I’m unemployed – my warehouse shut down until they say it’s fit to go back,” said Rodgers, father of the Sayre senior. Rodgers said he had been hoping to see work start up again in May, “but from what I’m hearing on the news, that’s not going to happen.”
In the meantime, times are getting tighter and more stressful, Rodgers said. “I’ve been off work for a month. I didn’t get unemployment yet. I did get the stimulus, but the stimulus only covered what I already owed. It didn’t go far. In fact, it’s gone,” he said.
For Rodgers and his partner, Crystal Cox, the shutdown arrived just as they were ready to see their last child graduate. Rodgers and Cox put three students through Philadelphia public schools – “in Philadelphia, that’s not easy,” Rodgers said – and their son’s diploma was going to mark a milestone in their lives as well as his.
“I was hoping to see him walk down the aisle,” said Cox sadly.
The two were also hoping to see the young man go on to college. He’s a computer lover who once spoke of a career in technology, but college doesn’t come up these days, Cox said.
“He’s not even talking about it anymore,” she said. “He’s a very smart kid, gets A’s and B’s. But he hasn’t been talking about it lately.”