As an education reporter for The Inquirer, I cover stories that sometimes strike a personal nerve.
A piece I wrote earlier this month, about the educational digital divide, was just such a story. When I dropped in at the Gloucester County Boys & Girls Club in Paulsboro, I found a good tale and so much more in the sweet faces of the children who reminded me of my niece and three nephews.
In the innocent eyes of 7-year-old Devon, I found courage. Seconds after we met on the playground during recess, he looked up and said to me, “I need a hug.”
In the middle of a pandemic? On my first in-person assignment since March?
Wearing a mask and holding my notebook in one hand, I silently prayed for both of us and embraced him. I needed that hug as much as Devon did. And — after my story was published — I needed what unfolded next: the beautiful public support in response to the club’s plea for help in keeping its young members digitally connected during one of the most tumultuous times in our country’s history.
Children at the Boys & Girls club cheerfully share computers to log into virtual classrooms because there aren’t enough devices for every child in the economically-disadvantaged Gloucester County school district. Sadly, their plight is not unique.
In Camden, for example, Jordan Hawkins, 17, a senior at Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School, had been doing online classes the only way she could — on the tiny screen on her cell phone. She worried that she would get marked absent because she could not be seen on camera the way her classmates with computer access could be.
I wrote about Hawkins and how, across the region, some less affluent districts have struggled to provide devices and free internet access to students learning remotely. Experts, I reported, said the inequities widen the achievement gap between low-income school districts and their more affluent counterparts.
Karen Borrelli, a health and physical education teacher at Brimm High, said Jordan was the only student in her online class of about 60 students without a device. Jordan kept up with her work by completing tasks manually.
“It was like writing with your hands tied behind your back,” Borrelli said. “It would take her 10 to 15 minutes to do what the other students could do in a minute.”
That bothered me — and, it turned out, it also bothered readers.
A day after my story about the students' plight was published, the first email landed in my inbox. It was from a Philadelphia businessman who offered to purchase a laptop for Hawkins, one of five siblings. He could only imagine the challenges she faced in class without a device, he said. His own daughter, 17, is also a senior, so he knows firsthand the workload that high-schoolers face.
“I just couldn’t stand by and read that article and not do anything,” said the man, who requested anonymity. “I’m fortunate to be able to help.”
Within days, Jordan — who aspires to be an orthopedic surgeon — had a new laptop and matching carry bag, which she showed off in a Facetime chat with me. She hopes to meet her benefactor one day.
“I’m very thankful for this,” she said. “God is good.”
About 460 students in Camden are without devices, which is roughly 7% of those enrolled in the city’s 18 traditional public schools, according to Sheena Yera, a district spokesperson.
A shipment of 550 devices is on back order and expected to arrive sometime in November. Until then, said Yera, teachers are giving paper packets to students who are unable to access online programs.
”One of our main goals is to focus on closing the digital divide,” she said.
Paulsboro schools, which currently enroll about 1,200 students in remote-only instruction, are also awaiting delivery of devices — 800 of them are expected in March, said Superintendent Roy J. Dawson. That leaves about 100 students without devices to connect to their classrooms, he said.
Gov. Phil Murphy estimated at the beginning of the school year that at least 230,000 public school students, roughly one-fifth of New Jersey’s enrollment, were without devices or internet access. Most schools opened with hybrid or remote-only learning.
At the Boys & Girls Club in Paulsboro, about 10 or so students typically show up without devices. About 25 students in kindergarten through third grade attend virtual school in three classrooms.
Students in the same class share devices or use a parent’s cellphone. Siblings Eli, a first-grader, and Ezekial, a second grader, alternated days that they use a district-issued Chromebook. Because of the shortage, the district handed out one device per family.
In just five days, things drastically improved, thanks to readers. The club received eight devices from three donors, including Bonnie Dettore, a clinical pharmaceutical company manager and former nurse. She drove from her Chester County home on a rainy morning to drop off two Chromebooks.
“Every child should have the same opportunity. I figured I had to do something,” said Dettore, who has two adult children. “I try to give back as much as I can.”
Every student now has access to a device, said Michelle LaRue, the club’s director. Some of the computers are old and a little slow, but at least students can get online, she said. One student, Ocean, 7, said she was relieved not to have to “look at my tiny phone screen.”
”It’s helping our students keep up,” LaRue said. “They’re not missing out on education because of technology.”
The generosity of Inquirer readers to the plight of these sweet children has moved me to tears, which is not an easy feat: After more than three decades as a journalist, I often feel like I have seen, heard, and felt it all. But this story — and readers’ overwhelmingly generous response to it — has reminded me yet again that this is a region of good folks with big hearts. And I’m grateful.