The Unit 5 school district will buy nearly 8,000 tablets, laptops and Chromebook computers and try to get them into the hands of students and teachers for the new school year.
The price tag is about $2 million over a four-year lease purchase agreement approved Wednesday evening by the school board.
Special Education Services Director Michelle Lamboley said 3,370 tablets will go to every elementary school student in case pandemic conditions force distance learning in the fall term. Until now, elementary students had shared computers in the classroom, and the school-from-home regime forced on Unit 5 for part of the spring semester complicated instruction for younger students, said district leaders.
“We want to be in-person, but we also want to recognize that we need to have a platform to use if that’s not possible and we strongly believe it would enhance what we are already doing with that technology,” said Lamboley.
Even in the classroom, having each student with his or her own computer device will limit multiple people touching the same objects.
“It’s limited how you can get books and then they have to sit for a period of time and that will make it harder in the classrooms,” she said, adding students will have access to a service called Epic that includes 40,000 books.
In addition to the tablets for elementary students, teachers will get 1,150 laptops to improve their ability to offer distance education supervision, and students in other grades will receive 3,350 chromebooks.
The district will pay for the computers and for refurbishment of the district’s entire wi-fi node network primarily with pandemic relief grant money and also will use education fund dollars and technology lease fund money, said Unit 5 Assistant Superintendent Marty Hickman.
Hickman acknowledged the time frame is tight to receive the computers, install needed software and distribute them by the start of school.
“It will be a challenge because almost every district in the country is facing a similar challenge,” he said. “We have already talked to the vendor and we will put purchase orders in Thursday morning.”
Hickman said he anticipates a mid-July delivery date for the student devices.
“The majority of (existing) staff devices we would probably want to just recycle, but some of the newer ones that are only four to five years old might be useful in a distance learning environment,” said Hickman.
Lamboley said family surveys of how distance learning went during the spring showed parents understood and forgave some of the difficulties in such a quick turn to remove learning, but also expect the district to improve its offerings if the same conditions prevail in the fall.
“Student engagement started to decline as the year went on,” said Lamboley, though “70% felt kids were engaged until the end.”
Lamboley tried to reassure school board members the tablets for younger students will not be overused.
“We realize at the elementary level there is a need to keep an eye on screen time and we will try to maximize the benefits as well as heed the limits of the technology,” she said.
Unit 5 administrators said they had long considered expanding to a so-called one-to-one level of computers and students anyway, and that the new purchase will benefit instruction no matter where the teaching takes place.
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