Chicago is set to loan its families up to 100,000 laptops and other tech devices across the next few weeks, and priority will go to special education students, English language learners, and students in eighth grade and higher who don’t have devices at home, according to a letter to principals this week from district leaders. 

Dibs also will go to children in temporary living situations and students who are taking online Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment courses at Chicago’s City Colleges and other area institutions, the district said. 

The effort will still fall short of reaching every student who needs a device, leaders acknowledged to principals, since surveys estimate need at around 115,000 children. “We are committed to finding additional resources for students,” the letter said.  

Loaner devices will go first to students at schools in neighborhoods that score highest on a “hardship index” developed by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.

Chicago Public Schools is repurposing about 65,000 devices from technology carts and its campuses and purchasing another 37,000 Chromebooks that are currently back-ordered but set to arrive in a few weeks. Fewer than one-third of Chicago’s district-run schools equip each of its students with devices, according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office. 

The large-scale device distribution is unprecedented for Chicago, which, like districts across the country, is grappling with how to kickstart learning remotely while schools close indefinitely amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Two-thirds of district leaders in Illinois said in a recent survey that they cannot implement a full e-learning plan because of a lack of devices, technology, internet access, and teacher training. Chicago Public Schools leaders have said they face similar roadblocks. 

To foot the bill for the purchases, Chicago is tapping into the $75 million coronavirus emergency fund that the school board approved last week. The federal government is sending money from the coronavirus stimulus bill to districts for emergency efforts; Illinois is set to get a half-billion for its schools, and Chicago’s portion of that is about $206 million, according to the state.

The state school board has recommended that schools provide digital and non-digital access to education content, because not all families have devices and internet at home.

Devices are a critical mechanism to connect students with their teachers and with the bevy of online resources available to guide learning. But almost as soon as the district announced its plan this week, the questions started coming: How can students sign up? And how soon? 

In a letter to principals on Thursday, Chicago’s Chief Schools Officer Bogdana Chkoumbova and Chief Information Officer Phillip DiBartolo laid out guidelines for the 100,000-device giveaway. Here’s what else they said:

  • Device pickup will start at most schools the week of April 13, though principals can start earlier. School leaders will be responsible for determining who qualifies under the loaner program and providing details on pick-up times. 
  • Students under 18 must have a parent or guardian pick up the device.
  • School staff will be asked to verify the identification of the parent or guardian through a state-issued ID or utility bill.  
  • Qualifying students living in the same household may each receive a device.
  • Parents/students are responsible for caring for and preventing damage to checked out devices. However, parents will not be charged for damage to devices.
  • Principals may request their staff to volunteer to assist with the device distribution. 

The note to principals cautions against theft. “CPS recommends that schools arrange for a security officer to be present during the distribution. If your school’s security officer is not available, please contact the CPS Student Safety Center,” the notice reads.