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Media Coverage | ‘Not a handout … a hand up’: Coalition launches challenge to raise money for 3,000 laptops

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Lauren Rosenblatt | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | April 8, 2020 | Read the full article 

Vanessa Buffry’s closet is filled floor-to-ceiling with computers.

They’re not all for her.

Ms. Buffry is a senior program manager for digital inclusion at Neighborhood Allies, a community development organization, and her husband is volunteering with Computer Reach, a computer refurbishing company in Wilkinsburg, to refurbish and distribute computers.

Adhering to social distancing guidelines and orders to close physical operations of all non-life-sustaining businesses, he’s working from home.Schools face myriad challenges as remote learning gets underway.

The closet is the only place the kids wouldn’t get to the computers, Ms. Buffry said.

As the spread of COVID-19 has sent many people to work remotely and students to work from home, “The computer refurbishment process has kicked into high gear from basically nothing,” Ms. Buffry said.

The groups are working to turn Computer Reach’s operations into a “Ford-like machine.”

To ramp up efforts to bring more computers to students who need them, Neighborhood Allies announced a new partnership Tuesday with the Pittsburgh Technology Council and Aurora Innovation, a self-driving car company based in Lawrenceville.

With a coalition of companies and foundations, the groups are launching a challenge — coined “Beyond the Laptops” — to purchase and refurbish more than 3,000 laptops for students and families who don’t have access to a device.

“A global pandemic is like the ultimate stress test,” said Mayor Bill Peduto on a Zoom conference call announcing the new initiative. “One of the things we realized pretty early on is when we looked at telecommuting and tele-education, there were many people who would be left behind.”

“Now it’s time to look at our young Pittsburghers and try to find a way to get them the same opportunities that all kids have,” Mr. Peduto said. “Not a handout, just a hand up.”

Each year, school districts often see a “summer slide,” or a dip in learning over the summer months, particularly for students who don’t have access to the tools and support to keep learning on their own, according to superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools Anthony Hamlet.

Amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, the district is bracing for a “second semester slide,” Mr. Hamlet said.

Pittsburgh Public Schools, which has a large percentage of low-income students who don’t have access to devices necessary for remote learning, ordered 5,000 laptops that it will add to its stockpile of 2,500. The University of Pittsburgh also donated another 599 laptops to the district.

“This is a monumental task that is not insurmountable,” Mr. Hamlet said.

The Beyond the Laptop program, which is not limited just to Pittsburgh Public Schools students but is working with the district, is hoping to deliver 1,000 laptops in the next two weeks.

The next round of 1,000 would arrive in mid to late-May, Ms. Buffry said.

It costs Neighborhood Allies $50-$100 to refurbish one laptop and about $300 to purchase a new one, according to Gerardo Interiano, head of government relations for Aurora Innovation.

“From our perspective, digital inclusion is a three-legged stool. You have to have the devices, you have to have the access and connectivity and you have to have the programs,” Mr. Interiano said. “It’s going to take millions of dollars just to fix the device challenge.”

So far, the organizations have raised more than $150,000 with donations from Aurora, Google, RK Mellon, Pitt and Gismondi Family Foundation, according to a press release announcing the challenge.

The coalition is also accepting donations of computers and other equipment. But, Ms. Buffry said, it is limited to accepting only bulk donations of 25 or more because of the time it takes to disinfectant the devices.

Lauren Rosenblatt: lrosenblatt@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1565.

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