Cherry Hill schools got computers out to students within a few days of shutting down. Cheltenham was still asking parents this week if their kids had access to technology with plans for some structured learning in mid-April. Philadelphia remains frozen in instructional limbo because it’s short 50,000 computers. Only on Thursday, as it got $5 million from the personal coffers of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, did Philadelphia officially authorize funding to arm kids with laptops.

Roberts, his tech empire just blocks from beleaguered school offices, said he had been “moved” to help the long-underfunded district.

This is no way for our nation’s most essential civic institution to be crawling through the coronavirus shutdown.

It is a scotch-tape approach to figuring out how to educate children during the forced shutdown of schools and an order for everyone to stay home. Sure — let’s grant a pass for a week or two. This pandemic has been disorienting, at the least. But here is why anything short of a full commitment to continue with full instruction will be failure:

The have-nots will be left in last year if we don’t fix this, and quickly.

The call for aggressive and swift cyberlearning comes at a time of incredible fear for many parents. We are home trying to cobble together school curricula that many districts have failed to deliver. We are worried for our jobs. We are watching our neighbors lose theirs. We can’t imagine our kids getting cut down at the knees, too.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cratered the U.S. economy, causing nearly 650,000 unemployment claims in Pennsylvania alone. More than ever, it is American government’s obligation to ensure that our kids remain on track.

It’s not OK to let the majority fall behind while a minority sprint ahead: kids in private schools that made the transition to online learning, or whose parents pay high property taxes for access to the best public schools.

We can’t allow this to become the Lost Year of Learning for those not at the tippy top of the economic ladder.

District bureaucrats, governors, policymakers, and the philanthropists whose corporations have done well for years while politicians gutted aid for schools — they must now step up.

Public schools are a pillar of our democracy and they fuel our capitalist system. They unleash brilliance on U.S. soil. Many graduates go on to become some of the most successful people in business and art.

A screenshot from the livestream of a recent Philadelphia School Board Meeting, where the issue of buying 50,000 computers for coronavirus remote learning was discussed.
A screenshot from the livestream of a recent Philadelphia School Board Meeting, where the issue of buying 50,000 computers for coronavirus remote learning was discussed.

Some teachers in Philadelphia, under no requirement to do so, began to offer remote instruction soon after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered two weeks ago the closure of Pennsylvania schools. But then came a district directive that put a stop to any appearance that teachers were requiring that kids do assignments. Not every student had access to the tools for remote learning. Administrators opted to unequivocally deny mandatory instruction to all of the 120,000-plus students in this stubbornly underfunded district.

I heard a similar echo of concern from even some suburban districts in Pennsylvania, which have been reluctant to send curricula and assignments home for the same reason.

Meanwhile, there has been little disruption in more affluent districts, and I’ve heard instruction has continued seamlessly for children at some private schools.

Cherry Hill and Lower Merion got computers into the hands of students almost immediately. Cherry Hill, as Inquirer colleague Melanie Burney reported, has been pushing out lesson plans and remote teacher dial-ins with students on Google Classroom — even for kindergartners.

As early as March 19, Cherry Hill Public Schools employees distributed Chromebook computers for students through this drive-up setup at the Malberg Administration Building.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
As early as March 19, Cherry Hill Public Schools employees distributed Chromebook computers for students through this drive-up setup at the Malberg Administration Building.

By denying instruction for much longer, districts will be responsible for students falling behind. By not holding classes, they also are placing a terrible weight on parents who must work while also somehow homeschooling their children.

Shame on any superintendent or governor who pushes the lazy notion that one solution is to make our children’s learning optional. That is not what a tax-funded school system should ever tell its taxpayers — especially in lower-income and middle-class communities, where safety nets are thin.

The travesty of underfunding in Philadelphia, while heart-wrenching, was in the making over many years. No one should have been surprised that, amid a global health crisis that would shutter schools and much of our economy, that a high-poverty city and district would struggle mightily.

Even with the donation announced Thursday by Roberts and his family, the last-minute aid from the Comcast titan will still not stop students from losing what is shaping up to be a full month of instruction. Computers will be ready for distribution by April 8, as colleague Kristen Graham reported, but remote learning will begin only by April 17.

Roberts, whose father founded the global corporation that occupies two Center City skyscrapers, told The Inquirer that his family’s donation — a gift separate from the philanthropic arm of Comcast, which has come under criticism for not successfully connecting enough needy households to internet — was a “very obvious, very tangible thing, to know that every public school kid is going to have a laptop.”

He added: "It’s a heartbreak to imagine kids not being able to learn who are ready to learn.”

On Friday, the governor of Pennsylvania mandated in a new law that districts must make “good faith efforts" to continue educating students during the ongoing closures.

Let’s hope that is just a first shot. Because it is not good enough. Not at all.