Volunteer Dietlind looks through her checklist on April 11, as a parent drives up to grab a Chromebook for their Berkeley High student at the newly rebranded Ed Hub. Photo: Pete Rosos

Maria Vega is the temporary owner of one of the 2,500 Chromebooks the Berkeley Unified School District has handed out to families since campuses closed.

Having the computer has helped her Oxford Elementary student complete remote schoolwork while Vega, a single mother, juggles her job and caring for her younger child, who will start kindergarten next year. But the machine is only half of what any Berkeley family absolutely needs in order to access online worksheets and games, and live Google Meet sessions with teachers and classmates. An internet connection is the other.

Until last week, Vega was using her cellphone as a WiFi hotspot, draining the costly data each day so her daughter could learn like she normally does for free at school.

On Friday, Vega drove to the large parking lot outside the BUSD headquarters, where she picked up a hotspot device from volunteers running the “Ed Hub,” a newly named one-stop shop operating three days a week. There, families can pick up technology equipment and musical instruments, and soon will have access to calculators, colored pencils and printed packets. Most of the supplies are reserved for high-need students the district has identified and contacted, but the Chromebooks and instruments have been available to anyone, and books will soon be too.

On Friday, a masked, gloved Vega followed arrows drawn on the ground and extended her arm out the driver’s-side window, grabbing the package from a masked, gloved Berkeley Public Schools Fund volunteer’s own outstretched arm.

“Having this little device is going to really help,” said Vega, as she exited the parking lot.

There has been much forecasting of the potential devastating effects of the coronavirus on educational equity. Some kids come from well-equipped homes where only one parent works and the other can devote their time to an elaborate homeschooling regimen. Others come from homes without computers, or with abusive conditions that make it difficult to learn. Or they may need to help with work or child care themselves as parents get laid off. External conditions always breed academic disparities, but when you take school out of the picture altogether those gaps can grow even wider.

Even well-off families have had trouble carrying out BUSD’s “distance learning” plan. Who previously thought to purchase extra laptops for their five- and nine-year-olds? Was high-speed internet a necessity when there weren’t four people trying to use it at once for eight hours a day?

While BUSD scrambled to get the distance learning plan in place, the district began distributing various accoutrements needed for families to access the lessons.

The Ed Hub is a partnership between BUSD and the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, which typically gives out grants to teachers for academic supplies, field trips and performances. Now, its corps of 500 volunteers is engaged in supply distribution, and the Schools Fund has raised $400,000. So far, it has spent $50,000 on direct financial assistance for families in need, $55,000 on school supplies, $5,000 to shelter homeless families, and $2,000 on books and headphones, according to Executive Director Erin Rhoades. (The Chromebooks have all come from the district’s existing stock.)

Maria Vega picks up an internet hotspot device on April 17 so she can stop draining her phone data while her 10-year-old does online schoolwork. Photo: Pete Rosos

The 13,000 pounds of school supplies arriving imminently will be divided by grade level and given out at the Ed Hub, starting Monday, to children from low-income families or foster homes.

“Eventually we will have purchased schools supplies, ordered books and distributed Chromebooks to the students most impacted. Our goal is to alleviate the inequities that are heightened right now by school closures,” said Rhoades in an email.

The BUSD garden program has also assembled a limited number of seeds and soil packages, also intended for high-need families. Those kits will be on offer Friday at the district’s meal distribution sites.

Anne Marie Callegari, supervisor of BUSD’s Office of Family Engagement & Equity, said her staff has interacted with about a quarter of all district families since schools closed, responding to concerns and connecting them with resources. Many of those connections have only been possible because of years of respectful relationship-building, Callegari said.

“Many of our hard-working families that needed a little help with meeting food needs a few months ago, now need school meals, groceries from our food banks, and money for basic needs, rent, bills, etc.,” she said in an email. “Most needs we are seeing are only magnified because of the pandemic. Of all that we have encountered, lack of access to computers and the internet stand out the most.”

But she said the so-called digital divide predates the coronavirus.

“All students need access at home to information that can help them to complete homework, research and writing assignments, even when a pandemic isn’t taking place,” Callegari said.

Among those who showed up to the drive-through Ed Hub on Friday were Cragmont Elementary teacher Carlos Cruciani, picking up Chromebooks for three students he’d noticed weren’t showing up to virtual lessons, and a Washington Elementary father from a full house with clashing technology needs.

“This is our second Chromebook,” said Stefan Marti, who has a kindergartener and a third grader. “We got one but they were fighting over it. I have my own computer, but my wife and I are both working from home. I’ve been going back and forth between the two kids — they’re not old enough to be independent.” Their teachers are doing a great job, but it’s nothing compared to regular school, he said.

Vega said her daughter has been stepping up to help with her younger son. “But there’s only so much homework you can do, and so many activities you can do” before someone asks again why they can’t go visit their aunt or grandparent, she said.

Rosa Mendez, who was working the Ed Hub on Friday, has a middle-schooler at Longfellow and even older kids at home, so she has a little more time on her hands than the flustered parents of little ones. She’s decided to spend it volunteering, both with the Schools Fund and with a mutual aid program.

Volunteers prepare to hand out Chromebooks to BUSD parents at the Ed Hub. Photo: Pete Rosos

With BUSD, she started by translating resource information into Spanish, and now on afternoons like Friday she straps on a mask and heads to the West Campus parking lot.

“Hi, are you here for a Chromebook?” she asks, then waves the driver through. She’s planning to grab a computer for her own daughter too.

On the upside, Mendez said, children like hers need less time to acclimate to the digital lifestyle than their parents do. Her daughter had “virtual playdates” even before the pandemic started. But like for all the families Mendez served that Friday, the closure of schools has been a transition for her own.

The online lessons her daughter completes are nice, Mendez said, “but she’s done in an hour.”

“I’ve been reaching back to my school days and trying to fill it in,” she said. “She’s always complaining that it’s not what she’s learning in school, but I always tell her you can’t learn too much.”

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...