Inspired by pandemic, SL district pushes for computers for every student

Friday, May 8, 2020

Spurred by the pandemic experience, Storm Lake Schools are proposing to go to a “one-to-one” technology system that would allow every student to have a district-provided laptop computer for use at school and at home.

“The pandemic has put a spotlight on many things,” Superintendent Stacey Cole said, especially the need for technology to better communicate and teach.

“We need to learn from this problem we are in right now,” school board member Dave Skibsted agreed.

The pandemic caught schools unaware. “No one knew on that Thursday that no one was coming back - ever,” Superintendent Stacey Cole said.

As the district transitioned to voluntary education from home during quarantine, many students did not have the necessary access.

“It does feel like the time we need to make sure all of our kids have devices,” Technology Director Sarah Freking told the board of education during a special meeting this week. Some homes may have a computer, but with parents needing it to work at home, or other siblings needing it, students have struggled.

Non-sharing of devices has also become an issue as the pandemic has raised concerns about sanitation.

“Kids come in and grab a Chromebook out of a cart in the classroom. In a day’s time, nine kids are likely touching that device,” Freking said.

Cole said she has long been a proponent of one-to-one technology. “It’s a no brainer - we almost have enough devices for everyone, so why have multiple kids sharing the same device?” she said.

The district hopes to reach the one-to-one level quickly, with the board to be asked to approve in two weeks.

Currently the district is about 300 Chromebooks short of having enough devices for all students in grades kindergarten-12. Several hundred more current computers are at the end of their life cycle and need to be replaced.

The district intends to spend some of the CARES Act federal dollars it expects on the Chromebooks and a program that can filter online use of the devices when they go home.

With computers generally used only at school, the district has been replacing devices on five year cycle, one building each year. Expecting more wear and tear as students take the Chromebooks to and from home, the district anticipates replacement after four years.

It is opting not to purchase bags for the devices. Other schools that send laptops home find that the students don’t use computer bags, preferring to transport them in their own backpacks.

Cost of additional equipment is estimated at $240,000. Normal annual replacement runs $300,000-$400,000 per year.

“If something like this happens again, students will have their computers at home,” Freking said.

“We are all fairly confident that something is going to happen again,” Superintendent Cole said. Many of the district’s substitutes are in the most vulnerable age group for illness like COVID-19.

The Department of Education is sending strong indications that districts will be able to do more hybrid learning situations from outside a traditional classroom in the future, capitalizing on what has been learned from the quarantine situation.

“We will need to think differently when we come back,” Cole told the board. “What does learning need to look like for teachers to make the best opportunities possible?”

The goal of a one-to-one program will not be to give kids devices so they can sit at home, but to foster flexibility of the best possible education, she said.

Having computers to take home doesn’t solve issues, however, if students lack internet access.

“We know every family does not have the internet. This is the first step - we’re definitely considering what we can do about that. We’re hoping their might be some funding available,” Freking said.

Demand might be an issue. “Every school in the U.S. right now wants [internet] hot spots, and they are going to be in short supply.”

Internet and broadband access is an issue much larger than the school district, Cole added. “That is a conversation across the whole state. We anticipate that happening at a different level than us, but we need to be prepared,” she said.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how much computer or internet access is hurting the district’s efforts to complete the school year via voluntary learning, as no formal attendance record is allowed.

“We can firmly say that we do have kids with connectivity issues,” Cole said. “We find that for the kids who really need to make it work, we’ve found ways.”

Some of the educators have been up all night helping students, she said. One night this week, a student was finishing an assignment at 2 a.m. with a staff member overseeing, as the student had other obligations during the day. A number of students have needed to take jobs to help support their families during the difficult time, and the district has tried to be flexible to their schedules.

The district has facilitated students borrowing a Chromebook even with calls late at night.

“The kids who really want to get things done are reaching out to the adults they know will help them, and getting things done,” Cole said.

Some students, and even some teachers who need to access the district’s home server, have taken to working in the parking lots of the vacant schools where wireless internet connections are possible.

In other business during this week’s school board meeting:

• A public hearing for a budget amendment was set for May 20, in recognition of building projects and some unexpected expenses. The change would not impact the tax levy.

• Some issues have been experienced with footings for the middle school gym construction, due to water issues. Extra rock and geo wiring is being added to solidify the foundation for the project, which is expected to be completed when school starts next fall. Preparations for some new middle school classrooms being created out of former multipurpose space are progressing, and currently awaiting bricklayers. The district’s Building & Trades teacher will be doing some of the internal wall construction.

• Several contracts were offered, including one for a new varsity girls basketball coach, Nathan Richter. Richter has been a boys basketball assistant.