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When Caldwell School District closed its schools in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Janeth Calderon was left with little more than her own cellphone's hotspot to teach her four children. 

"It's been challenging," Calderon said. 

But thanks to efforts within the school district, and a program through Idaho Business for Education, Calderon's family now has two laptops she can use to educate her children while schools are closed. 

Idaho Business for Education, a nonprofit group comprised of hundreds of businesses dedicated to transforming Idaho's education system, launched a statewide initiative called the Community Activation Project to collect used computer devices to donate to Idaho school districts, and to partner with internet companies to provide hotspots for families without internet access.

Idaho Business for Education will accept laptops, tablets, desktops and any other devices that can connect schools to students, according to its website. The nonprofit is also looking for donations of keyboards, power cords and computer mouses. 

Idaho Business for Education CEO Rod Gramer said 12,000 to 15,000 devices are needed statewide, and about 22,000 students are without internet access, according to information Idaho Business for Education gathered from school districts. 

Caldwell School District Superintendent Shalene French said her district is short roughly 1,800 devices, and some 2,000 students lack internet access. About 65 Caldwell teachers also are in need of a device, she said. 

Caldwell's secondary schools have distributed hundreds of Chromebooks, a type of laptop, that the schools had on hand, and about 200 laptops donated through Idaho Business for Education's program last week went a long way toward filling that gap, she said. 

"I'm just so grateful to what they have done," French said. 

Calderon's family received one of the donated laptops, and her 15-year-old son Mario Calderon received a Chromebook from Caldwell High School. The devices have made a huge difference in her life, she said. 

Calderon is the only adult in a household with four children, ages 5 to 15, two of whom have special needs. Before receiving the laptops, she said the only resources she had to teach her children was her cellphone hotspot and paper printouts made available by the district. 

With the two laptops, educating her children will still be challenging, but much more manageable. Mario Calderon's Chromebook is only capable of accessing high school learning materials, she said, so her three youngest children will have to share the remaining laptop. Calderon said she plans to schedule out their school time between the morning and afternoon. 

Overall, Calderon said she's been impressed with the dedication of the Caldwell School District's teaching staff. She said her children's teachers are consistently checking in on her family and going out of their way to make sure their students are keeping up with their education. 

Gramer said Idaho Business for Education sanitizes and clears sensitive data from all donated devices before giving them to the districts. As of last week, he said Idaho Business for Education had gathered about 550 devices across multiple regional teams throughout the state. 

"We desperately need more," Gramer said. 

Alishia Jones, who heads the Idaho Business for Education team for Treasure Valley, said she's waiting on about 200 more computers to be donated from local companies. Ten or so organizations have donated devices so far, and countless others have helped with the program in other ways. 

"There are honestly so many entities that are willing to help out," Jones said. 

But there is still a huge need ahead of Idaho Business for Education. Jones said Vallivue School District officials expressed a need for 500 devices and about 2,000 internet connections. In the Meridian-based West Ada School District, officials originally estimated a need of 4,000 devices and 2,000 internet connections, but Jones said she has not been in contact with them for a few weeks, so their needs could have changed. West Ada district spokesman Eric Exline could not immediately provide comment Tuesday afternoon. 

One school district that has not reached out to Idaho Business for Education with device or internet needs is the Nampa School District, Gramer said. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district implemented a 1-to-1 student to device system, and he said officials "seem on top of it."

Even after schools reopen, Gramer said he believes the pandemic will increase the role of distance learning on a long-term basis. The pandemic has exposed the gaps in educational support, showing which communities lack the resources necessary to continue online learning. 

Though there will always be brick-and-mortar schools, Gramer said it's possible that the response to COVID-19 will lead to a more permanent change in Idaho's education system. 

"We need to come together as a state to work on closing the digital divide," Gramer said. 

Erin Bamer is the Nampa/Caldwell reporter. Contact her at 208-465-8193, or Follow on Twitter @ErinBamer.

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