As school districts from Lower Merion to Cherry Hill prepared to give students Chromebooks this week, Shaxi Ortiz picked up worksheets and reading materials from a Camden elementary school for her two daughters.

“I only have one computer,” said Ortiz, as she left the Wiggins School on Tuesday with Shaxielys, a second grader, and Jeanielys, a kindergartner. “If they both need to go online, what would I do?”

Across the nation, school districts are facing the unprecedented challenge of educating millions of children at home in isolation while communities work to stem the spread of the coronavirus — a mission that is laying bare the divide between wealthy and poorer districts.

“The digital divide is something we struggle with,” said Katrina McCombs, superintendent in Camden, where a survey found only 30% of families in the nearly 6,000-student district have internet access and electronic devices for each student. The shutdown “has just exacerbated the inequalities.”

In some communities, children are getting laptops and their teachers are posting videos of lessons, giving assignments and responding to students’ questions and messages. In others, students are being asked to pick up packets of schoolwork, largely to navigate themselves or with parents.

“This is when the inequity between funding and resources for districts becomes the most prevalent," said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Late Tuesday, the Philadelphia School District had directed teachers not to offer remote instruction, suggesting that wouldn’t “ensure equity” for all students. District officials cited guidance from the state and federal education departments that said they cannot provide instruction to some students unless all students can access it.

“As we all know, some of our students have special instructional needs, some lack access to a computer, and some will have responsibility for taking care of younger siblings or older relatives while their parents are at work," Naomi Wyatt, the superintendent’s chief of staff, and Malika Savoy-Brooks, the chief academic support officer, wrote in a memo to principals.

But after the policy was made public, the district clarified that stance Wednesday, saying Philadelphia’s public school teachers could offer optional, online lessons for students as long as those who can’t or don’t participate are not penalized.

“Wherever possible, if a teacher can be available for communication with his or her students, we encourage them to do that,” said district spokesperson Monica Lewis.

While school districts are trying to ensure that all students are treated equally, not providing any education to students means the neediest will fall further behind, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group at the University of Washington Bothell. She noted Seattle public schools also cited unequal access as a reason they are not providing digital learning during the coronavirus crisis.

"There’s really good intention there,” Lake said, but providing some learning would be "better than nothing.” Districts with low-income students like Philadelphia “are going to need us to bring everything we’ve got to the problem of making sure they’ve got access to learning.”

Other districts aren’t facing the same dilemma. In Radnor, school leaders on Thursday will launch an all-online instructional program, with students expected to complete five days of assignments and stay in touch with teachers.

Lower Merion began remote learning Wednesday and will be “slowly expanding in terms of the classes" for high school students and setting up schedules, Superintendent Robert Copeland told school board members during a Monday night meeting conducted by phone.

In Phoenixville, the school district asked parents to ensure they can log into Canvas, a digital learning platform, to prepare for online learning that began Wednesday. The Tredyffrin/Easttown School District promised to email elementary school parents by 2 p.m. each day to ensure their children are participating in distance learning activities.

Cherry Hill gave out 700 Chromebooks earlier this week and plans to distribute another 700 Thursday for families with multiple students. “Everybody should be easily connected," said spokesperson Barbara Wilson.

Liza Rodriguez said she was surprised when her daughter, Jeilani, 12, a sixth grader at Pennsauken Middle School, came home without a Chromebook. The family does not have internet access or an electronic device.

“What are they supposed to do if they don’t have a computer?” said Rodriguez, 39. She said her daughter typically goes to the library to do homework, but those are closed.

Like many districts, Pennsauken provided students with homework instruction packets. A district official said all materials accommodated students without internet access.

In Philadelphia, about 5,000 educational packets were picked up by families Tuesday, according to city Managing Director Brian Abernathy. Roughly 130,000 Philadelphia students are enrolled in district-run schools; an additional 70,000 in the city attend district-funded charter schools.

Packets don’t work for all students, said Kristyn McCrohan, a seventh-grade math teacher at Mayfair Elementary. She had been posting optional lessons online — and was among the educators confused Wednesday by the district’s directive not to provide remote instruction.

The packets don’t “help our [English-language learners] and our special-education students,” she said.

Superintendent of Camden Schools Katrina McCombs talks to reporters at U.S. Wiggins College Preparatory Lab Family School in Camden on Tuesday.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Superintendent of Camden Schools Katrina McCombs talks to reporters at U.S. Wiggins College Preparatory Lab Family School in Camden on Tuesday.

New Jersey districts are required to provide instruction during the closure. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has told its school districts they are not, but if they do, they “must ensure full access to learning for all students.”

The Upper Darby School District put its online learning plan for students on hold earlier this week in light of the guidance. Late Wednesday, the district said it would move forward with a “nonmandatory educational opportunities plan” that students could access online.

“I’d like to provide the best online education with our teachers and staff that we can,” said Superintendent Dan McGarry in a phone interview Tuesday. But “we know there’s an equity issue, we know there’s an access issue" — not just around computers, which the district plans to provide to families, but around English language and special education services, McGarry said.

“In a community like ours, we can’t just send packets of education and say ‘Learn on your own,’ " he said.

Rick Levis, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said this week that “we recognize that schools and their students and families have questions.” He said the department would be continuing to update guidance to districts.

Before the shutdown, Kate Conroy’s students at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia were reading Othello. Conroy, a student teacher, and her colleagues made the text available online. They were also recording themselves acting out various parts and will eventually edit the clips together and post them on Instagram.

But they’re not sure how many students will even be able to access the text or the performance.

“We told kids: ‘If you can’t get online, then you can’t. We’ll make sure you don’t get punished,’” Conroy said. “It feels like there is no good solution for our kids.”

She is spending the coronavirus break babysitting kids from a suburban preschool where she used to work — and sees stark differences in the resources available.

“These kids are 5, from a private preschool in New Jersey," Conroy said, "and they have assignments on Google Classroom.”

Staff writers Laura McCrystal and Anna Orso contributed to this article.