When schools transitioned to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Education was tasked with procuring, preparing and distributing internet-enabled iPads to hundreds of thousands of students.

However, according to a new audit released by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, the agency’s “inadequate controls” over the distribution of the devices resulted in inequitable distribution and waste.

Stringer audit found that 16,451 requests students made in 2020 for remote learning devices remained under review or unresolved as of March 25, 2021, and that more than one remote learning device was shipped to at least 3,045 students. The agency purchased a total of 357,000 remote learning devices in April and June 2020.

Stinger’s investigation found that DOE did not centrally track devices schools issued from their in-house inventories; had not formalized procedures for the tracking and distribution of devices; and did not perform timely reviews of device-related data.

As of March 25, 2021, 19,425 requests from students were still “under review” and “unresolved,” with 16,451 of those requests dating back to 2020, some as early as March.

“DOE did not explain why these requests remained ‘under review’ or ‘unresolved’ for such an extended period of time,” the investigation found.

Stringer said that for years, lower-income children and families have struggled without reliable connectivity, and “the severe impacts of this digital divide were only exacerbated when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.”

 “The DOE had a responsibility to provide remote learning devices to hundreds of thousands of students, but our audit shows the agency did not have consistent protocols in place to ensure that devices were distributed when they were needed most,” he said.

“Even one child falling behind in schoolwork because of these errors is unacceptable.”

He urged the DOE to promptly correct the deficiencies and implement his recommendations to make sure remote learning devices were distributed equitably and to those who needed them.

Stringer laid out ten recommendations for the department, which included creating a central tracking system to account for all devices issued to students; disseminating detailed written policies and procedures governing the agency’s management of validating student requests for a device; reconciling device request and device distribution data; ensuring that reports are timely; and ensuring that the 19,425 requests that are still “under review” and “unresolved” are investigated.

Stringer said that DOE agreed with eight of the audit’s 10 recommendations. However, for two of these recommendations he said officials’ assertion that the agency was already in compliance was contradicted by the audit findings.

Additionally, DOE disagreed with the audit’s recommendations that it ensure that Request IDs and asset tag numbers are issued in sequential order and tracked.

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Anna Bradley-Smith

Anna Bradley-Smith is Brooklyn-based reporter with bylines in NBC, VICE, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @annabradsmith.

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