North Fork teachers join up to ensure students in need have laptops for home use

As schools pivot to online learning, educators are grappling with how to ensure equal access to technology for students.

To answer that question, teachers associations across the North Fork are teaming up to provide Google Chromebooks to students in need. The North Fork Tech Project, comprised of educators from Oysterponds, Greenport, Southold, Mattituck-Cutchogue and Riverhead, pooled their resources to make an initial purchase of 50 Chromebooks—and they’re hoping to raise funds to help even more students.

“The number of computers that our schools have to give to families are finite,” said Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace. “As teachers we are concerned that the most vulnerable of our students might not have the tools they need to succeed remotely. We are doing our best to ensure equity for all of our students during this time,” he said.

Even districts that do provide Chromebooks to students may not cover all grade levels. In Southold, where Mike Carver teaches social studies, students in grades 3-12 were issued Chromebooks. He said Friday that their goal is to “close those gaps” in access.

Mr. Carver, who is the president of the Southold Faculty Association, said the initiative covers the entire North Fork. “This disease doesn’t know town lines,” he said. “It’s not a town thing. It’s a kid thing. Families are under enough stress.”

Oysterponds Faculty Association Amy Schill said access to technology is a problem that exists in every district. “We as leaders felt we should work together to help as many children as we can throughout our communities,” she said.

Chromebooks and similar pieces of technology have played a key role as school districts switch to distance learning, especially since libraries in the area also remain closed.

Salesman Jose Acosta, who works at PC Richards in Riverhead, is working with Mr. Wallace to make sure the items are in stock. “It’s been a nightmare to get them in,” Mr. Acosta said Friday, as a growing number of districts have turned to online learning amid the virus outbreak. “But I will have them,” he assured.

Several internet providers have also announced measures to ensure students can stay connected. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Altice USA, who owns Optimum, is offering a free internet package for  households with K-12 or college students who may be displaced due to school closures and who do not currently have home internet access.

“We know that our connectivity services, especially broadband and voice, are essential for fostering learning for students, powering our local businesses, and keeping our communities connected,” Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei said in a statement.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had originally ordered schools to close until April 1 but as the date neared, a growing number of superintendents and educators doubted the plan’s feasibility.

Gov. Cuomo announced Friday that schools will remain closed through at least April 15, allowing two more weeks to evaluate the situation.

Turning to online platforms has been a challenge for educators and students alike, Mr. Carver said, adding that nothing can replace face-to-face instruction. “It’s a learning curve for all of us,” he said. Again, the challenge stretches beyond district lines and has seen teachers in all districts sharing resources. “We’re all sharing ideas,” he said.

Nearby, officials in the Shoreham-Wading River School District are also preparing to provide students with crucial technology with distance learning scheduled to begin Monday. “Given recent news, I do expect that the closure of schools will go on for a longer period of time,” Superintendent Gerard Poole wrote in a letter to parents Thursday.

Middle and high school students in Shoreham were already using Chromebooks, and officials last week ordered enough for all K-5 students. Mr. Poole said school officials plan to deliver a Chromebook to students homes early next week. “Out of caution, they are being prepared with the use of gloves and disinfectants,” he said, adding that delivery plans are still being finalized.

Mr. Carver said that in addition to collecting donations, their next step concerns logistics. The North Fork Tech Project collaborators will be working with school social workers and other resources to determine where need exists.

Anyone interested in helping with the initiative is asked to email [email protected]. Donations can be made by purchasing a computer directly by calling PC Richards 631-727-8900 and asking for Jose Acosta, mailing a check to the Riverhead Central Faculty Association at 223 Roanoke Ave., Riverhead, NY 11901, c/o North Fork Tech Project or via Venmo, @nf-tech-project.