Silver Spring, Maryland —As the largest county in Maryland, Montgomery County, prepares to take its classes online for students within days, it is ensuring students who need laptops will have them. Public school staff handed out laptops across the county on Thursday.
At first glance, the parking lot distribution looked like a fast-food line, with dozens of cars idling in an organized fashion. Drivers patiently waited for a signal prompting them to roll forward. But instead of ordering a burger through an intercom, parents held up a piece of paper displaying a student ID number through their car windows.
Donning personal protective equipment, like face masks and disposable gloves, Montgomery County Public Schools staff in Maryland communicates the number to colleagues standing a few feet away.
They scan the barcode and place a laptop on a cart, rolling it over to the driver at the front of the line. Without making any contact, the driver picks up the laptop from the cart and slowly drives out of the parking lot.
It's a glimpse at how communities are coping with the public health obstacles imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
"Today we are doing Chromebook distribution," said Renay Johnson, the principal of Montgomery Blair High School, in Silver Spring, Maryland. "We are supplying technology for our students who need technology at home to continue their learning, or maybe their parents are working from home. Now our students will have their own devices to do their schoolwork."
Accessibility to technology has never been more important for the roughly 55 million students affected by school closures in the U.S. COVID-19 has forced more than 124,000 public and private schools to shut their doors for the foreseeable future, according to estimates. Montgomery County schools are closed until April 24, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced Wednesday.
Students were originally supposed to be on spring break the week of April 6, but instead they'll be learning remotely from home computers. Online education places a high burden on families, especially on those who don't have the tools readily available.
A spokesperson for Montgomery County Public Schools declined to confirm to CBS News the number of laptops available for distribution but said, "we have enough to ensure everyone who doesn't have a computer at home can get one."
Micheline Ewang waited in two separate, but efficient drive-through lines in order to obtain laptops for her two children.
"When I saw it, I was like 'Thank you, Lord,'" she said, referring to the county's laptop loan program announcement.
Her family normally shares one computer. And that computer broke about a week ago, leaving the family digitally disconnected and unequipped to participate in remote classes slated to begin in early April. Distant learning will be the new statewide norm until at least April 24, Hogan said.
As a single mom and recently unemployed hotel housekeeping supervisor, Ewang says she's financially stretched. Without the ability to pick up two laptops for her children, who are in third grade and 10th grades, she told CBS News that she would have had to delay the purchase of another computer until she received a relief check from the government.
Joelle Lutchman attended the drive-through distribution on behalf of his 11th grade daughter, Alexis. He has one laptop at home, but relies on it to work from home as a customer service representative for Under Armour. That left his teenage daughter without the technology she needed to continue her high school courses, like AP calculus.
"Using her phone, she can only do so much," he said. "A lot of the work needs to have Microsoft programs. So, I'm really glad that they're giving these out because now she can continue doing her work and hopefully not miss a step."
The laptops will provide much need relief for busy mothers like Kisha Castillo, too. As an essential employee at a medical facility, she says the extra devices will help maintain peace at home while she's at work.
"We only have one laptop in the house currently, so it's important for each one to have one, so they're not fighting over it. Now with school being out and the uncertainty of school, I have to schedule home schooling for them, so it's very important to have the tools that we can use," she said.
Experts say educational inequity and America's growing digital divide have always existed, but it's been further exposed by the pandemic. Montgomery County, Maryland, home to more than 166,000 students, joins a growing number of public school systems implementing laptop loaner programs to ensure students have the technology they need to participate in online learning. Similar initiatives have begun in Florida and Michigan.
The "homework gap" issue extends beyond computers. It's also about broadband accessibility. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center analysis, some 15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home. Some 17% of teenagers report that they're unable to complete some assignments because they don't have a reliable connection.
The county school system says it will also be lending a limited number of internet hotspots. And for the next two months Comcast will be giving free internet access to those who need it in the county through an existing program. Spectrum, and Verizon are also offering free or discounted rates for students.