Waldemar Rodríguez y Mariela Pacheco. (Teresa Canino Rivera)

Over the past 10 years, the Department of Education (DE) has signed contracts that totaled over $1.6 billion for equipment, training, as well as technical and data processing services. But when COVID-19 forced to try "online" classes last March, almost no one had computers, platforms, or technology training provided by the agency.

Waldemar Rodríguez (14), an eighth-grade student from the Caimito neighborhood of Yauco, saw the problem very clearly. He doesn't have a computer or a phone with an Internet connection, because his mother Mariela Pacheco couldn't pay for the service during the pandemic, and they cut it off. As a result, he was left without education during the semester, first because of the January earthquake and then because of the pandemic.

"I spent my days bored, playing basketball. I couldn't do anything else. For school, all I did was the first two assignments I got. I copied them because I didn't understand them. I copied them and sent them to my teacher," he says. "I didn't have much learning, but, well, I passed."

Many teachers found their students faced the same problems.

"My work tool was my telephone, which I used up practically and I had to switch to an unlimited data plan because I had no other work tool," says Berlisse López, an eighth- and ninth-grade Spanish teacher at Cacique Agüeybaná middle and high school in Bayamón.

School closures showed a critical reality: despite the huge investment, the ED does not have a culture or technological infrastructure that would allow it to transition to online education to meet the enormous challenges of the past semester.

Most teachers, therefore, had to rely on free apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook to teach "online classes." Students had very short periods of classes that were possible because educators used their creativity and personal equipment to end a tremendously complicated semester, according to El Nuevo Día's Research and Data Unit.

Looking ahead to the next school year, and with many schools facing high probabilities of not reopening, the agency has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment, training and licensing, with the intention that every teacher and every student will have a new computer and will be able to communicate online.

The ED has not yet decided what to do in August. Secretary Eligio Hernández said he is evaluating classroom-based classes, online courses, or a hybrid of the two.

The agency is beginning the process amid great uncertainty, including that only about one-fifth of the computers it purchased for $227 million will have been delivered by the beginning of the next school year, and the agency's lack of knowledge about as basic an issue as how many students have access to the Internet at home, among other critical aspects of understanding online education.

The ED has also invested funds in training teachers in the use of the Microsoft Teams platform, but many educators said they were not satisfied with the process and when interviewed, did not know that they would have to train students and their parents in the use of the platform.

An analysis by El Nuevo Día's Research and Data Unit shows that last semester, the ED did not comply with its constitutional responsibility to provide education to a minimum of 22,100 students, while in the current scenario the next school year may be similar.

"It's complicated. This scenario is draining us out, it´s a huge effort," acknowledged Hernández, when asked about how he sees the next semester.

Multi-million dollar purchase

The most important initiative by the ED to address the situation is the purchase of 244,830 laptops for students in grades three to four, 56,200 tablets for children in kindergarten through third grade, and 30,000 laptops for teachers, for $227 million. The agency has not yet disbursed all of this money. Besides, it invested $24.6 million in training and assessing teachers' technological skills.

Purchases total 111,330 HP ProBook X360 "laptops" and 18,000 Apple iPad tablets for students, and charging devices to Computerlink company, for $95.9 million. They also bought 30,000 Dell Latitude 3190 laptops from Evertec for $35 million. This equipment was acquired with funds from the federal Restart program for schools recovery process after hurricanes Irma and María.

The ED also bought 133,500 Dell Latitude 3190 "laptops" and their cases for $92.8 million from the Caribbean Data System company, and another 38,200 iPads for $22 million from Computerlink, with part of the $124 million in state funds allocated to address the coronavirus pandemic.

Prices include different accessories for the devices, as well as - in some cases - the costs of teacher training, electronic monitoring of the equipment and its programming. "The ED will ensure that all students in the public education system have robust technology for the learning process, with the programming required by the agency," Hernández said.

Laptops will not arrive on time. The problems are in the details.

On one hand, 81 percent of the computers and tablets purchased will not be available in August, according to the contracts. On the other hand, vulnerable communities, where 78 percent of public school students live, have significant connectivity and technology accessibility challenges, reveal several state and federal official sources.

The only purchases expected to arrive by the time school starts are the 20,000 that Computerlink committed to delivering in June and that the ED expects to be arriving this week, plus another 19,500 that are scheduled to arrive later in July. This month, they also expect that 18,000 tablets purchased from Computerlink will also arrive. The 30,000 computers for teachers should also be delivered in July, while the entire order to Caribbean Data System, completed in April, should be delivered "between August and November."

This means that, in the best possible scenario, by the beginning of August, only 19 percent of the laptops and tablets will have been delivered to the ED. Hernández and his team have attributed the delay to the challenges to the processes filed by two ED bidders.

Disputes filed by WF Computer and Sesco Technology Solutions were resolved in favor of the ED in court rulings in October 2019 and February 2020.

The Secretary said the agency is considering several scenarios for distance learning courses if COVID-19 prevents the return to face-to-face classes, among which he mentioned the courses in WIPR.

Students without Internet access

Another challenge is that the ED does not know how many students have Internet access at home.

The ED has data through two internal agency sources, but neither gives an accurate picture. One source is a survey of parents during the enrollment process, which was completed by about 70,000 families, of which, according to the secretary, about 20 percent said they had no "technology" at home.

The ED said they will provide the specific result of this survey, but by press time, they had not done so. Without evidence to support it, Hernández and the director of the Office of Information Systems and Technology Support for Teaching (Osiatd, Spanish acronym), Victor Ortiz, said some families lied to receive new computers. "We found two contradictory approaches. The first was directed at whether or not they have the technology ('laptops', computers, etc.), and some indicated they do not, but were working online and had connectivity," the Secretary said.

The other source the ED has is a report by the School Social Work Program, with reports from teachers on students who were unable to access the internet during the pandemic shutdown. According to that report, 34,000 of the nearly 300,000 students in the public education system do not have access to the Internet. Hernández acknowledged that he "expected a much higher number. " "There are gaps" in the information, he said.

Critical connectivity scenario

When looking at other sources, it seems that the ED is facing a greater challenge if classes had to begin online in August.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's community survey, there are 335,175 households on the island without a computer in the house. Besides, 274,000 families reported having only a smartphone. There are also 433,525 households without an Internet subscription. These data reflect that, for families with children, it would be very difficult to get them to take classes online.

The Youth Development Institute, a non-profit organization part of the Boys & Girls Club, estimates that 56 percent of households below the poverty level with children aged 0-17 do not have computers. This figure drops dramatically (21 percent) in households above the poverty level. 78 percent of students in the public system live below the poverty level.

Challenges will not end even if the ED achieves its goal of giving every child a computer. According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), only 62 percent of households in rural areas on the island have broadband Internet as needed to take classes online.

In urban areas, it is 91 percent.

Only 56.2 percent of Puerto Rico's households now have a broadband Internet subscription, according to the Census survey. The rest do not have internet access or only have cellphone data. There are towns where there are very few families with broadband, such as Lajas and Cabo Rojo, with 20.1 percent of subscriptions each.

Teachers are aware

Teachers interviewed by El Nuevo Día do not need statistics as they experienced it firsthand when face-to-face classes were abruptly suspended on March 15. From one day to the next, they had to turn their courses to online mode, but without being provided with the tools.

El DE intentó improvisar poniendo a disposición de maestros y estudiantes unos “módulos” que realmente eran repasos de las pruebas META. Pero generalmente no sirvieron, porque tenían material que no había sido cubierto en clase y errores de programación. Además, eran de difícil acceso para estudiantes con problemas de conectividad a internet.

The ED tried to improvise by providing teachers and students with "modules" that were META tests review material. But generally, they were no good, because they had material that had not been covered in class and programming errors. They were also difficult to access for students with Internet connectivity problems.

The ED justified the errors. "It was an extremely fast process and we wanted to have an alternative. It all started with the keys, when they requested the keys and the subject and the teacher, I think there was a gap in what was shared to be graded. It wasn't that they weren't useful, maybe we could find an error as we found it in a book, document, or newspaper article, and that was corrected on the way," said Aixamar González, undersecretary of Academic Affairs.

"Many of these modules were written by our fellow teachers," she added.

Hernández had his own explanation for one of the errors. "They asked students to identify a particular color related to a figure. Within our system, we were seeing colors correctly, but in PDF it lost quality and instead of being red it looked orange," he said.

From north to south, east to west and throughout the island, stories were similar but they become more challenging in rural areas: teachers and students without computers and without or with an intermittent internet connection, and educators having to resort to free tools such as Facebook, Google Classroom or WhatsApp to be able to interact with their students.

This, despite the $985 million in contracts that, according to the Comptroller's Office, the ED has committed to technology training services since 2010.

María de los Angeles Rivera, a teacher at the Second Unit Sabana Hoyos School in Arecibo, said that her first contact with her third-grade students was through the WhatsApp groups that she had created before the pandemic to communicate with the parents. With others, she communicated through Facebook or e-mail.

"I even got assignments sent as pictures of handwritten papers. I know that there were students who never had access to apps because they didn't have the resources or the means to do so," said Berlisse López, a teacher from Bayamón.

Many of these teachers point out that a large percentage of their students also depended on the phones subsidized through the Universal Service Fund, which in the towns they simply call the "Obama's phones", with only 500 minutes for calls and 1GB or 2GB of internet. That made it an odyssey to get jobs done and sent to students who normally took five courses.

Once the school year was over, the ED required teachers to attend online workshops on the use of tools such as Microsoft 365. Teachers took the training with their own equipment since almost none of them have computers provided by the ED. When some spoke out about their lack of tools during the course, the lecturer, Eliut Flores Caraballo, had a solution for them: to sell cookies or wash cars to buy their own equipment.

The suggestion did not go down well.

"That was very humiliating. That person possibly earns, just for a one-hour workshop, more than we teachers earn in a month," said Frances Colón, a history teacher at the Republic of Colombia school, in San Juan. "Why do they tell us to sell cookies when other agencies provide employees with everything? The ED has the money because of the federal funds, but it never gets to schools," she said.

Keila López Alicea, David Cordero Mercado and Laura M. Quintero collaborated with this story.