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Memphis board members not ready to sign off on $37 million laptop plan for all students

Shelby County Schools wants to purchase new laptops and tablets for students. The district distributed some of its existing inventory to high school students who needed to catch up on classes while school buildings were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Shelby County Schools

Board members for Shelby County Schools pushed back Monday on a revised plan to provide students with laptops and internet access, saying there wasn’t enough information about how the technology would make education better.

“We are buying gasoline before we have a car,” said board member Billy Orgel. “You have to have a plan. That means an academic plan. That means training teachers to use the devices. And above all, that means training the parents and students to do it.”

Board members acknowledged a decision is needed soon so the district can purchase laptops and hotspots for the fall, but without answers, board member Michelle McKissack said the district would be “wasting money.”

“I’m getting flooded with emails from parents concerned about what’s next,” she said. “I know you want a decision ASAP, but there’s too many unanswered questions at this point.”

District staff presented some details of how teachers would be trained to deliver instruction online, but board members wanted more before voting on the $37 million plan at a special meeting on Thursday. The district plans to immediately start ordering equipment for the fall, though the laptops and tablets may arrive in waves through December. The first day of school is scheduled for August 10, but that could change. Superintendent Joris Ray expected a decision to be announced in early July.

The discussion underscores the question many districts faced even before the pandemic: Will more technology lead to better learning? Now that many districts are at least planning for the possibility that some learning will be remote in the fall because of coronavirus concerns, the question has become more urgent, leaders say.

“We don’t want just to provide devices to the children. We want to be able to yield the academic outcomes,” said Patrice Thomas, the district’s chief of staff. “Our children should do better academically as a result of having these tools.”

Ray was not present at the committee meeting Monday.

The revised plan presented Monday costs about $16 million less the first year and nearly $18 million less annually compared to a plan shared with the school board last month. Most of the money for the plan would come from federal coronavirus aid, leaving the district about $5 million short. Next year, the district would need about $24 million annually to continue the program.

The recommended reductions came from an advisory committee that included a principal, teacher, parent, student, board member, county commissioner, city council leader, and several business leaders.

Most of the cost savings came from using hotspots for Wi-Fi rather than having internet-loaded laptops. And based on a district survey of 61,000 parents, the students would need fewer hotspots than the district anticipated. About 15% said they did not have internet access at home. Parents of about 34,000 students did not respond to the survey.

Demetria Monix, an instructional technology manager, told board members that teacher training on online programs would begin this summer and be offered throughout the school year. The training would include videoconferencing, giving feedback on online assignments, and creating virtual classrooms.

About 60% of teachers reported they were not confident using technology in the classroom in a district survey administered before the pandemic. Board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman said she worried teachers would quit in the transition.

“Some of them may say, ‘I did not become an educator to sit behind a computer all day,’” she said.

Deputy superintendent Angela Whitelaw said the training would help make the most of a worst-case scenario.

“If the pandemic puts us in this place of remote learning, how can we help you to make sure that you are engaging with students?” she said.

The district would also offer training for parents at events and a handbook for reference.

Board member Stephanie Love said she wants to know what happens to a laptop if a student, as many do, transfers from a district-run school to a charter school or vice versa. She also said she wanted to know the cost of training parents and students to use the laptops and online system for assignments.

“I’m not ready to vote on this because I haven’t received any information that I need to make a vote to ensure that our parents and our students will have what they need,” she said during Monday’s committee meeting.

Lakshmi Visvanathan, the district’s chief information officer, said a team of IT professionals would cost about $1.5 million, though she was unsure if the team would be assembled by August.

You can read the district’s presentation below:

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