Parents left with questions after SCS board approves laptop distribution to students

SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — Tennessee's largest school district wants to bridge the digital divide among students.

The Shelby County School Board last night voted to give every student a laptop or tablet and even provide some students with internet access.

A lot of mixed emotions after the SCS school board decided to spend millions of dollars on laptops and tablets.

Parents told us after hearing the plan Monday night it left them scratching their head.

“I got off that call last night confused as hell,” said Helen Collins, parent.

Expanded learning opportunities is just one of the five key areas of a plan to give every SCS student a laptop or tablet and provide internet access to about 25 percent of families who expressed a need.

Collins said she believes it is a good move, but she thinks it lacks a good strategic plan for implementation.

“On the live feed, parents asked about special needs, about teachers, about the overall picture of how this thing is going to work,” she said.

According to SCS leaders, parents, teachers and most importantly students will take part in a comprehensive support plan to maximize these new learning resources.

How will it work?

The lessons will be loaded onto the laptops and tablets in case the district has to switch to all-online learning.

Recordings will allow teachers to “focus their time on necessary individualized learning, small groups, and well-being checks of students."

Education Specialist Eric Dunn said he believes the plan will experience major bumps in the first couple of years.

“I don’t know what type of network the district is using, but we are going to need a strong network to operate the entire district,” Dunn said. “They were talking about internet access. During the year so many children in Shelby County Schools go without electricity.”

SCS plans to begin giving students a laptop or tablet in August.

Leaders said every student should be equipped with one by November.

The district will spend $18.2 million on student devices, $4.1 million for teacher support, and $14.7 million in tech support, supplies, and insurance.

The first year of the plan, the upcoming 2020-21 school year, would cost the district $37 million.

Years two through four will cost $25 million each.

SCS reports $21 million will come from federal CARES Act money Congress passed for coronavirus relief.

Memphis City Council is contributing $5 million.

Another $8 million will come from other state, local and federal sources.

The district hopes to sell more than $2 million in “educational advertisements” and notes they will save $3.4 million in textbooks and other materials.”

More from the board meeting:

The board voted 8-1 in support, according to a tweet from Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray.

Kevin Woods, one of the board members who helped approve the plan said, "This is a huge win for the children of Shelby County.”

SCS released the following information on its website:

Shelby County Schools (SCS) is moving forward with the 1:1 digital device plan to provide devices to every student in the District.

The Digital Access Advisory Committee, consisting of internal and external stakeholders, presented a second update regarding their plan to the School Board during Monday’s Academic Performance Committee meeting.

The proposed digital access plan is in alignment with Plan A of the previously proposed “Transition to Improving Digital Access “plan. It includes costs for student devices and connectivity, teacher supports, initial configuration costs, and device insurance. Its success will be measured based on student academic gains and literacy improvements.

“As part of our commitment to equity for all students, providing and supporting access to technology is vital to the learning process,” said Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray. “I’m thankful to our School Board and our Digital Advisory Committee for their valuable input as we worked to prepare a sustainable, cost-effective plan.”

“As a District and School Board, our focus remains on serving the children and families of our community,” said Miska Clay Bibbs, SCS Board Chairperson. “Developing a robust plan that provides digital access for all students will help us continue to move the academic needle forward – making certain all students are prepared for learning whether they are within or outside school walls.”

"Great work by the SCS Board and Superintendent Ray," said Kevn Woods, SCS Board Member. "Providing digital devices to all students and Wi-Fi to those in need is an historic opportunity for our families and scholars!"

The plan address five key areas of focus identified by the District.

Expanded Learning Opportunities

To reimagine teaching and learning in Shelby County Schools, we must reimagine student access to teachers, instruction and supports.

Student devices are not designed to replace in-person instruction or minimize the importance of live teacher-led instruction. They will allow for more enrichment at home and opportunities to expand student learning options.

Equity through Access

This device plan builds on the District's ongoing Equity in Action Plan, which aims to ensure all students have the same access to academic supports.

If we provide equity and access to devices and connectivity, all students will have the opportunity to further own their academic progress and pursuits outside of the classroom. This gives every student, with the right tools and teacher support, the opportunity to reach their greatest potential.

Prior to this unprecedented pandemic, SCS went before the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in 2019 to articulate the District's priority to ensure equitable access to technology as we reimagine education.

As part of last year’s budget, thousands of devices were provided to students in our Project Graduation, AP/Dual Enrollment, Summer School programs to support their learning during the closure.

Bridging the Digital Divide

We know access alone is not the answer, so we're implementing a comprehensive support plan to maximize these learning resources. This includes training for students and parents, as well as professional development for our educators.

This spring, the District shared the Transition To Improving Digital Access plan, which includes a budget summary, security protocols, deployment processes, and a professional development scope for teachers and staff.

Since presenting that proposed plan in April, the team has added a phased implementation plan that includes initial configuration costs, a fiscal sustainability model, device insurance, and technical support for students and parents. This includes the parent Microsoft Teams training sessions that began June 15.

The District is also finalizing a plan to allow charters to opt- in in order to benefit from the economies of scale related to such a large digital device purchase.

Sustaining our Investment

This device plan is a not a short-term investment, it's a strategy for the future. It will be a fixture in the annual budget development processes, and SCS is working to identify strategic opportunities, such as sponsorships and philanthropic partnerships, to ensure our students continue to have access.

In May, Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray recommended that the District use 75 percent of its CARES Act funds to purchase digital devices saying it is imperative that digital learning be a focus in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ensuring Digital Safety & Privacy

While the District already adheres to robust data protection guidelines, we will strengthen protocols to ensure student data and privacy is protected.

Each device will include secure tracking software, federally approved content filtering and strict guidelines for acceptable use by teachers and students. There will also be clear guidelines for making clear what platforms for learning are accepted for use by both students and teachers

The District has selected vendors who have existing State contracts in order to move the plan forward at a faster pace and expedite the process of purchasing student devices. Those vendors are Microsoft and HP.

Last month, the district asked the Shelby County Commission to help support this. Shelby County Schools asked for $21 million from the county.

SCS said it hopes to use the $36 million it got from the CARES Act to help pay for the devices, extended learning, and other uses. But it won’t be nearly enough.

Superintendent Joris Ray said he is pushing for the digital devices just in case students and teachers are not able to go back to school in the fall.


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