Boys & Girls Club joins schools in helping kids power up with laptops, hot spots

  • Arganie Alegria, of Holyoke, receives devices from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. SUBMITTED PHOTO/BOYS & GIRLS CLUB OF GREATER HOLYOKE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/16/2020 2:03:45 PM

HOLYOKE — The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke, using $35,000 in grant funding awarded in March, has been distributing laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to families of area schoolchildren to help facilitate remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

The organization purchased 75 Chromebooks as well as 25 W-Fi hotspots, which come with a year of free internet service, and have distributed around 90 percent of the devices to families, according to Eileen D. Cavanaugh, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. Holyoke Public Schools has also lent more than 1,600 devices to students who did not have one and, along with the mayor’s office, struck a deal with Comcast to provide free internet access for six months.

A total of $1 million in grant funding was made available by The Waldron Charitable Fund, a donor-advised fund at the Boston Foundation, aimed at meeting the needs of children impacted by school closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement from the foundation. When Cavanaugh heard about the grant program in March, she said she reached out to Holyoke receiver-superintendent Stephen Zrike, who identified access to technology and connectivity for some students as a need.

“We have been doing a lot of work in partnership with the public schools for several years now in trying to increase our youth’s academic success, and so it was a priority area for us as an organization,” Cavanaugh said about helping address some of the academic challenges created from school closures.

Cavanaugh said she applied for the grant on March 13 and received the funds March 20. The Boston Foundation in its statement called the funds a “rapid-response grant.”

“It was a really fast turnaround,” Cavanaugh said.

The Boys & Girls Club operates satellite units in public housing communities in partnership with the Holyoke Housing Authority, Cavanaugh said, which allowed the organization to individually reach out to families who had already been participating in programming. After surveying families’ needs for technology, Cavanaugh said, the Boys & Girls Club started to individually determine their needs and distribute equipment from its office at 70 Nick Cosmos Way.

The organization purchased a year of internet service for each hotspot, Cavanaugh said. A full-time technology director is following up with families to help troubleshoot and will continue to do that over the course of the year, she said, adding that students ultimately get to keep the devices.

Zrike said Friday that the Boys & Girls Club becoming involved in donating Chromebooks to students has helped fill in some gaps in getting students connected virtually. 

“Just because we’ve announced it doesn’t mean we’ve been able to penetrate all families,” Zrike said about the school system’s device lending imitative. “They have inroads with students and families in different ways than we do.”

In addition to the more than 1,600 devices lent by the public schools, Zrike said another 400 or so students have already had devices at two of the system’s middle schools. There are still many devices left, Zrike said, and paraprofessionals have been given Chromebooks as well. Zrike said he believes The Boys & Girls Club is mostly donating its technology to the city’s public school students.

The pandemic, Zrike said, has shed light on the unpreparedness of education as a whole when faced with the need to pivot to virtual learning. He said the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is looking at using its relationships and procurement power to help school districts purchase equipment and assist in expanding internet connectivity.

“We have to be more prepared for this. And while I think we have a lot in place, we didn’t have enough,” Zrike said. “As an industry, this has really been a shock to the system.”

Michael Connors can be reached at 
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