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Laptops for all: Spokane district initiative would aim to make distance learning equitable

UPDATED: Fri., June 26, 2020

Jan McGowan, left, and Heather Miciak video chat with another teacher at Regal Elementary School (Libby Kamrowski)
Jan McGowan, left, and Heather Miciak video chat with another teacher at Regal Elementary School (Libby Kamrowski)

Spokane Public Schools is making a case for a comprehensive plan that would give every child in the district an equitable chance at distance learning.

At Wednesday night’s board meeting, directors gave informal approval to a proposal that would allocate $3.8 million toward the purchase of hardware and software.

If adopted, the initiative would allow each student to have a district-issued laptop at home.

The investment would “give the district the opportunity to be ready for COVID and 21st century learning,” associate superintendent Adam Swinyard told the board.

Most of the funding will come from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act dollars, with some future outlays paid for by district levies.

When COVID-19 struck three months ago, Spokane was better prepared than most districts, thanks to earlier investments in laptops.

Those laptops were checked out – one per family, which wasn’t enough for some – and hotspots created in school parking lots.

That also proved insufficient, as Spokane and other districts learned as the year went on.

Now, with the probability of some students continuing to learn from home this fall, the district will attempt to close the gap.

The proposal calls for the purchase of 2,600 additional laptops at a cost of about $1,336,000. Combined with existing stock, that would fulfill the goal of a laptop for each of the district’s 31,000 students.

Other costs in what Swinyard termed “Priority 1” materials are $795,000 for cloud-management software and $25,000 for off-premises web filtering.

The second priority would be the purchase of 6,000 power adapters, plus power strips for every classroom, for an additional $305,000.

The third priority – 31,000 headphones and 3,000 internet hotspots – would cost another $1.44 million, bring the total outlay to $3.8 million.

The other option – checkout on demand – would save only about $400,000 in reduced cloud-management costs, Swinyard said as he and technology coordinator Scott Kerwien recommended the 1:1 checkout model.

“That would mitigate the need to share devices, and we think this would position us to have equitable access,” Swinyard said.

The other issue, lack of connectivity, was blamed by many teachers in Spokane and elsewhere for the learning gap experienced after schools were closed in mid-March.

Even after laptops were distributed, many families lacked internet access despite discounted prices offered by many local providers.

Until the 2018-19 school year, Spokane relied on a model that granted teachers short-term access to enough laptops for a classroom.

That year, levy funds were earmarked for the purchase of 26,000 laptops, which guaranteed 1:1 availability for secondary students and a 2:1 ratio at the elementary level.

That left Spokane better positioned than most districts to cope with the challenges of distance learning.

Now the district aims to stay ahead of the curve with staff training on “multiple modalities,” Kerwien said. “We also are aiming to train students with maintenance (of the laptops) and Blackboard.”

Swinyard praised teachers’ “resiliency” during the crisis and expects that to continue, no matter what school looks like this fall.

There are more challenges ahead, but the district has laid out a training plan. It includes self-guided training and troubleshooting for teachers, and the building of a student and family technology resources repository on the district website.

The district has already created an all-staff support team for training and answering staff questions, plus online courses, tailored by grade level, for students to learn the go-to platforms of Blackboard and Microsoft Teams.

Nationally, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a never-before-seen rush by school districts to buy laptops and tablets. At a minimum, hundreds of thousands of devices have been ordered in the last three months alone.

That type of tech infusion has the potential to reshape the classroom, wherever it’s held.

“This is such a golden opportunity to transform teaching and learning into a more tech-based ecosystem,” said Leslie Wilson, the co-founder and former CEO of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit that consults with schools and districts.

“But in the real world, you can’t just deploy devices and expect you’re going to transform education for the better simply because you’ve done that,” Wilson told Education Week.

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