Tiffany Nelson’s son needed a new laptop.
It was early in the pandemic and the old one, provided by St. Louis Public Schools, had been damaged. The district wanted a $320 deposit before Nelson’s son could get a new device.
Nelson is a nurse practitioner. She has lived in Saint-Louis all her life. With four school-aged children, finding several hundred dollars for technology her child needed for school was no small feat.
“The process of getting a new device was confusing and infuriating to say the least,” Nelson says. “Fortunately, after persevering, he received a new device, but other students in the district weren’t so lucky.”
At the time, Nelson was a client of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a nonprofit that helps people living in poverty with various legal needs. During the pandemic, helping families access technology so kids don’t fall behind in virtual learning has become an unexpected goal of some of the advocates there.
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“Initially, we heard about families who just didn’t have the technology,” says Hopey Fink, an attorney for the nonprofit’s educational justice program. “As the pandemic continued, we started hearing from families who may have initially had a device, but were later fined when they lost a device or damaged one. And so the students left without.
What Fink and his colleagues found was that various school districts had far-reaching policies on how to ensure students had access to technology. They began advocating with districts and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for policies that would remove fines and fees for those who cannot afford them.
The efforts led to the release of a white paper earlier this year that advocates using US bailout funding and other sources to eliminate fines and fees for those who have lost or damaged technology at carry ; and to develop consistent policies that ensure low-income students are not left behind in the future.
“The children who have suffered the most during the pandemic are those who were already marginalized by society,” write the authors. “Amid so many new questions and concerns, most school districts have shied away from taking the steps necessary to make access to technology truly equitable.”
Fink and his colleagues examined practices in St. Louis public schools, KIPP charter schools, Ritenour, Rockwood, Riverview Gardens, Union, University City, Webster Groves and East St. Louis school districts. What they found was a patchwork of disparate policies, but most involved costs, deposits or fines for lost or damaged equipment.
Lack of access to technology has been exacerbated for students who live in areas with poor internet service at home. Around the same time Legal Services was releasing its technology access white paper, another nonprofit, the Center for Civic Research and Innovation, was releasing its own work, the St. Louis Digital Divide. This report indicates that there are between 250,000 and 300,000 homes in the city and county of St. Louis combined that lack access to high-quality internet.
“These tech equity issues have been around for a long time, but the pandemic has certainly pushed them to the fore,” says Fink. “Districts are in different positions in part because of existing disparities in funding. But the problems we see are happening in many districts.
Fink hopes the Legal Services report will serve as a rallying cry — in some ways, as ArchCity Defenders’ white paper on municipal court abuses in St. Louis County did in 2014. This report highlighted the high costs of using municipal courts and police services. as fundraising tools for cities with limited budgets. Although schools are not looking to make money from the various costs they pass on to students and their parents to access technology, for families living in poverty the results can be just as devastating.
“There’s this reckoning that seems to take place where people understand that fines can be a barrier for the poor,” Fink says.
Students are falling behind, they have barriers to graduation, and families are spending money on education that could go to food, rent, or health care.
“Children shouldn’t be denied any aspect of their education because of a parent’s inability to pay for a new device,” Nelson says. “It is the responsibility of adults, including those at the cutting edge of their education, to set them up for success.”