THE move from in-person to remote learning for schools has raised concerns about the digital divide, whereby disadvantaged children do not have access to a device or the internet.

Yesterday, January 6, the Government announced a scheme temporarily increasing data allowances for mobile phone users on certain networks in efforts to increase connectivity to poorer communities.

But access to devices to then utilise this is still a problem in the North-East.

Chris Zarraga, director of Schools North East, which represents over 1,150 schools in the region, welcomed the announcement but called for more support.

He said "Any measure to help support digital access for the most disadvantaged is welcome however, this does not go far enough.

"While broadband and data access is a significant part of the problem, many students lack proper devices to work on and adequate space to work.

"There is also a parental knowledge gap which can make it difficult for parents in disadvantaged families to support their children through home learning. Furthermore, this measure is temporary, while the digital divide is a perennial issue that needs to be addressed beyond the impact of coronavirus."

Schools and local authorities can request devices for some pupils from the government, but allocation and distribution has been slow.

In November, Red Hall Primary in Darlington were allocated eight laptop for over 30 pupils without access to devices. This then was increased to 38 but the school was blocked from ordering them as they would have arrived during the Christmas holidays, with no-one there to collect them.

Headteacher Julie Davidson said: "Disaster has struck again, after one day of reopening we have been forced to go into a national lockdown before we could put in our order for the allocation.

"I have tried to order our remaining allocation of 30 laptops for the last two days but there is a block on the system."

Red Hall has been told that secondary schools are now being prioritised.

"This was frustrating to hear as the teachers had planned some of their lessons remotely," Ms Davidson added.

"It's understandable but disheartening. At present we still have a number of pupils at home that have no access to a device."

Ms Davidson believes more pupils will be in need during this lockdown as many families are unable to share devices as planned when the school send out its technology survey.

Meanwhile, Middlesbrough Council is meeting with headteachers to fully understand the scale of the logistical challenge.

Before the latest lockdown was confirmed, the council committed to a leasing scheme to support children forced to self-isolate when schools were open and fifty laptops and internet dongles are now available.

The council is also waiting on news from the government in further efforts to get children laptops.

Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston said: "One of my biggest concerns throughout the crisis has been the impact Covid is having on children.

"The young people of Middlesbrough are the future of our town and we must do everything we can to help them get through this disruption to their education.

"We want as level a playing field as possible. No child should be left behind at school because they can't get online at home. We put together a scheme last month to support kids who were self-isolating - clearly the challenge has now grown."

Mieka Smiles, executive member for communities and education, said: "Headteachers and their staff have had to react to a fast-moving situation at the start of the New Year.

"They're doing everything for the sake of their students and we're now waiting for news from the Department for Education on further laptop provision.

"The efforts of everyone working in schools have been nothing short of heroic. I know how much hard work is going into the logistics of home learning while also teaching the vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers.

"We'll continue to support schools in as many different ways as we can."

In North Yorkshire, the council is also supporting schools to make children can access remote learning. But like Middlesbrough, it is waiting to hear back from the government as to whether more devices will become available for pupils who missed out last year.

Stuart Carlton, corporate director of children and young people’s services said: “Schools have been communicating with parents about the move to remote teaching, since the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday on the new national lockdown.

"To provide remote learning across a rural county comes with its own challenges and we will continue to make sure all pupils are equipped with the devices and internet access they need.

“I would like to pay a particular debt of gratitude to headteachers, staff, governors and early years providers, who have worked tirelessly since March to rise to the many challenges the pandemic has brought with it and continue to do so."

The council has also been looking at the mental health aspect of school closures.

Mr Carlton added: "All mental health services are available and accessible.

"We have been putting extra training and support in schools to support mental health in recent months and all mental health services will still remain available to any young person who needs it.

“Any young person or family can speak to their school if they are concerned about mental health issues, or access some of our online support we have available."