Anthony Hamlet
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.

Pittsburgh Public Schools starts online instruction on April 16 — but many kids can’t participate because they don’t have computers at home.

The school district is doing all that it can to purchase laptops for as many kids as possible, but there’s still a great need for more. There are more than 7,000 students in Pittsburgh Public Schools who need computers.

The Pittsburgh tech community is stepping in to help fill this gap with the “Beyond the Laptops” challenge. The goal is to purchase and refurbish more than 3,000 laptops — and hopefully as many as 7,000 — for the students who are now doing all their learning at home.

Beyond the Laptops.

The project requires a complex partnership between self-driving car company Aurora Innovation, the Pittsburgh Technology Council, the nonprofit coordinator Neighborhood Allies and a host of other organizations. The initiative was announced during the Pittsburgh Tech Council’s daily “Business as Usual” Zoom call on Tuesday.

“Imagine just trying to write a report in ninth grade without access to the Internet,” said Mayor Bill Peduto during the call.

He noted that some students are working from a huge disadvantage, as more and more technology is adapted into every part of education.

“And people just don’t have the tools to be able to do it — it’s unfair,” said Peduto.

So far, the organizations have raised more than $150,000 with donations from Aurora, Google, Verizon, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Heinz Endowments, University of Pittsburgh and Gismondi Family Foundation.

They’ve secured a challenge grant fund worth $200,000, to be unlocked with the help of donations from the public. For those who want to donate, go to Beyond the Laptops

“Moving 23,000 students from a brick-and-mortar classroom instruction to remote learning at any time requires significant time,” says Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet. “We are going into this in less than a month or so; it’s a monumental task, but not an insurmountable task.”

The technology gap has only been made worse by the pandemic crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the disparity of technology and access in our region,” says Audrey Russo, president & CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. “We are excited to be working with Aurora, Google and the rest of the community to take a step toward narrowing the digital divide.”

It’s a partnership that came about almost by chance.

“I’m so glad Aurora saw our social posts to help Neighborhood Allies locate equipment and set up in such a big way,” says Russo. “The power of social media is amazing.”

Just $50 can refurbish a laptop, and give a kid access to the school system, which is now completely online.

The laptops are supplied through a partnership with the nonprofit Computer Reach in Wilkinsburg.

“In line with our vision of a computer-literate world where the benefits of technology are shared by all, Computer Reach is proud to be on the front lines of COVID-19 response,” says Executive Director Dave Sevick. “We’ve stepped up our production process and are mobilizing an extensive network of volunteers to audit, refurbish and distribute computers.”

For Aurora, it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s an investment in the future of the city.

“As a company co-headquartered in Pittsburgh, it’s important for us at Aurora to engage and support our community in these times of great need,” says Gerardo Interiano, Aurora’s head of government relations. “As we build and develop self-driving technology here in the community, we want to ensure that students throughout the city have access to the educational resources that will allow them to one day join us in solving the problems of tomorrow.”

“Bridging the digital divide is just a start and Aurora is humbled to work with community partners on this initiative. We encourage others to join us.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.