The Government has agreed to pay an extra $5.5 million for computers for high school students who still don't have devices at home.
Ministry of Education head Iona Holsted told schools last night that the extra funding "will cover the current unmet demand in the ministry's Salesforce ordering system for students in Years 9 and above only, with Auckland being prioritised first given Auckland's alert level 3 status".
"We will be contacting eligible Auckland schools and kura today and tomorrow to confirm your requirements and arrange for delivery of devices to your school or kura," she said.
"These devices will be your resources to distribute to students via contactless pick up. If your school or kura is closed due to a positive Covid-19 result we will work with you to find a safe delivery solution.
"For other eligible schools and kura across New Zealand, the priority in the next few days is to support Auckland. Someone from the distance learning team will be in touch with you in the coming days once we have been able to sort shipments in Auckland."
At an average cost of $680 per device, the extra funding will provide computers for about 8100 of the 70,000 school students around New Zealand who still didn't have computers at home at the end of July.
A majority will go to Auckland students but some will go to students with high needs elsewhere in the country.
The decision reverses a statement in another bulletin to schools issued last Thursday that "at present there is no further funding available for provision of additional devices".
The ministry told Education Minister Chris Hipkins on July 29 that it had given priority in an $87.7 million initial lockdown package to students in Years 11-13 and "the majority of device demand in has been met across all deciles for this cohort".
"We have delivered over 25,000 new laptops and Chromebooks to students," it said .
"A total of 53 per cent of requested devices for students in Years 9 and 10 across all decile levels have been fulfilled. Most of the remaining demand for devices is within the primary school sector.
"While the ministry has supported a significant number of students through provision of these devices, the remaining unmet demand expressed by schools and kura [especially in the primary sector] is significant, at around 70,000 devices."
Low-decile Auckland schools told the Herald that they were frantically photocopying printed learning packs for students who still don't have the gear to learn online.
Kiri Turketo of Ōtara's Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate said she received fewer than 200 of the 400 devices she requested through the ministry scheme - enough for all students in Years 12 and 13 but only for about half of Year 11 students and none for Years 9 and 10.
"We are preparing hard-copy materials for the others. As I speak, staff and the senior leadership team are furiously doing hard copies," she said.
Turketo has applied to charitable trusts and companies to fund computers for the students who still need them, but so far without success.
Davida Suasua of nearby Tangaroa College said staff were distributing devices to senior students who live close to them and preparing workbooks for Years 9 and 10.
"We have only basically planned for two weeks at the moment for our juniors. Anything over that, we'll be struggling."
Greg Pierce from Aorere College said he was also distributing devices to Years 12 and 13 but said: "The reality is that we still do not have sufficient stock of devices to ensure that all of our 850 students in the senior school have an individual device each."
Grant McMillan of James Cook High School is also prioritising the senior students for devices and producing workbooks for Years 9 to 11.
Ōtāhuhu College principal Neil Watson said he was sending devices out to Years 11-13 students by courier, but was using printed packs for Years 9 and 10.
"With the Year 9 and 10s we actually found the old-fashioned method was actually more effective," he said.
"That decision was made after we reviewed what happened last time. The feedback from students and families was that hard copies of work was preferable in the junior school."
Ronnie Govender of Manurewa's Ferguson Intermediate said he has also decided to issue workbooks this time.
"From our experience our Year 7 and 8 students did not make productive use of the devices and we will not be issuing devices this time," he said.
But Jerry Leaupepe of Māngere's Sir Douglas Bader Intermediate said public discussion was needed on how to provide affordable devices to intermediate students so that they would be ready for high school.
Tāmaki College principal Soana Pamaka said 80 per cent of her students have devices provided at cheap rates through the Manaiakalani Trust.
"As a Manaiakalani school our students can access the internet via access points spread out in our community on top of power poles, however there is a small percentage for whom internet access remains a challenge," she said.
Māngere College principal Tom Webb is also producing work booklets for Years 9 and 10 and computers only for Years 11-13. But he said neither system was ideal.
"I think all of our students are going to be disadvantaged in some way," he said.
"What we found last time is that they really appreciated coming back to school because they need the environment in the school and the interaction with friends and teachers to be able to really learn well."
Manurewa High School's Pete Jones said all his senior students and most junior students have devices but about 150 do not, including new students who have arrived from Australia because their parents have lost jobs in the Covid recession.
"In the first two weeks of this term we have done 26 enrolments, quite a number of those from Australia," he said.
He said New Zealand would face "a massive cost" in reduced learning unless long-term measures were taken to address the "digital divide".
"It's something that is really going to affect our kids," he said.
"It's the same with all the food support we get from KidsCan and Kiwi Harvest. In this day and age we should not be having to rely on charity to provide basic needs, and in this digital era I would say that's a basic need too - there is no job you can walk into that doesn't have a requirement for digital skills."
The ministry's July 29 report acknowledged that "much more needs to be done to truly close the digital divide".
"We also know that this problem is not unique to the education system and that real change needs broader collaboration across both social and private sectors," it said.
"The ministry will continue to work with industry and other agencies and partners to address this challenge as part of the Equitable Digital Access programme."
The ministry said last week that telecom companies were continuing to roll out provision of internet access to around 50,000 student households without connections, with free six-month internet packages.
"We are now working with our internet service providers to see if we can move more quickly on connections in the Auckland region," it said.
"As of July 31, 37,500 connections have been made or are in the process of being made, 15,500 are booked with internet service providers [ISPs] and we are working with our ISP provider to expedite connections within the Auckland region."