When schools and shops closed suddenly in March, many children were left without ways of accessing their lessons, while many older people found they did not have the technology needed to access services online. Two community appeals have helped bridge the gap for those who were left behind by the lockdown.
Teachers, parents and students at John Roan School in Blackheath banded together to raise thousands of pounds for laptops so no one would have to miss out on online lessons during lockdown.
The fundraising drive saw just over £14,500 raised to purchase 170 laptops which have now been distributed to students.
Lorna Magoris, a modern foreign languages teacher, spent nine hours going up and down 11 flights of stairs to help fundraise. Meanwhile, Lewis Gibbs and his friend Daniel Kennett-Brown, both Year 10 students, cycled 120km in six days around central London to raise cash.
Most of the fundraising challenges involved the number “120” because the school had initially planned to purchase 120 Google Chromebooks for students. But, a donation from the John Roan Foundation – the charitable trust which supports students – meant the school was able to purchase a total of 170 laptops.
“It’s been extraordinary,” said Livy Gibbs, a member of the school’s parent teachers association. “What became obvious very quickly at the start of lockdown was that there was a massive divide between the students who had access to technology at home and those that didn’t,” added Ms Gibbs.
Before the summer holidays, the school started using Microsoft Teams, a video conferencing program, to deliver classes. The laptops loaned to students have been programmed so they switch off at 8pm and social media sites have been disabled.
“They’re rubbish for YouTube, good for school work,” said Ms Gibbs. “Moving into September, teachers can continue to deliver lessons online if a student needs to isolate at home. They won’t need to miss two weeks of school,” she added.
The school, one of the oldest state schools in the country, was founded in 1677. It became an academy run by the United Learning trust last year amid protests from a teachers’ union.
Lewisham’s laptop library
A similar scheme to pair laptops with students and elderly residents in need has also launched for residents in Lewisham borough.
Damian Griffiths, a computer programmer, has spent the past two months creating the Lewisham Device Library. He, and a team of volunteers, refurbish donated laptops into working machines out of the Ewart community centre.
Before the pandemic, Mr Griffiths hosted weekly “techie tea clubs” where he would teach elderly locals how to use their mobile phones and computers over cups of tea and biscuits.
He said: “After lockdown, I started doing over the phone tech support for elderly residents. But there were more requests coming through for hardware. We want to provide people with devices which might not be the best quality, but provide what they need which might be connecting to the internet or doing work.”
He added that he could “really do” with more people helping with donation pickups from around the borough as the demand for tech has increased in recent weeks.
Janine Kendrick, a mother living in the Pepys Estate, Deptford, was a recent recipient of an Acer laptop from the Lewisham Device Library.
“I was a bit upset about the situation because all of my son’s friends were doing homework but not him,” said Ms Kendrick.
She learnt about the scheme while picking up food from a “social supermarket” on her estate which offers heavily subsidised food boxes for struggling residents.
“As a single mum with two boys I didn’t have money for two laptops. My boy Samuel was struggling with doing homework at home. For him, the laptop was a christmas present. His behaviour changed for the better. I am so glad,” she said.
She added that Samuel, 8, who is going into Year 4 next September, was “so happy” with his laptop.
Volunteer Sean Ryan, of Crofton Park, has been refurbishing laptops alongside Mr Griffiths for the past month.
Mr Ryan, an avid photographer who shares his photos on his Twitter account @Love_SE4, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a lifelong neurological condition, eight years ago.
Before the diagnosis, Mr Ryan was a venue rigger who would get stadiums ready for headliners such as Taylor Swift, U2 and Elton John. He now struggles to find work.
“Volunteering gives me a sense of purpose. I try to do lots of different things to help the community,” he said.
“What we’re doing here is important because some people need to have laptops for communication so they can contact people abroad. For children, it’s so important because if they have limited financial means they are missing out on schoolwork given to them from school,” he added.
To support John Roan School’s 120 Challenge, visit: www.givey.com/tjr120challenge
To find out more about the Lewisham Device Library and how to volunteer, visit: www.lewisham-device-library.org
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.
EMILY FINCH is a former reporter for the Islington Tribune.
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