What schools can do now to make sure their new tech lasts beyond the COVID cash boom

Billions of dollars in unplanned funding for new laptops, tablets, 3D printers and access points sounds like a district tech leader’s lucky day, not a slow train wreck.

But that’s what some educators and experts are finding when they look at the current situation in many schools. Driven by an urgent need to enable millions of students to learn virtually and fueled by tens of billions of dollars in federal relief, districts have tripled or quadrupled their device fleets in a single school year.

Many of these districts have adopted individual IT initiatives and the changes to instruction, classroom management, and professional development that accompany them. But within a few years, devices purchased with federal emergency funds will be obsolete or even stop working altogether, experts warn. Districts have different deadlines for spending various pots of federal funding, but the last must be allocated by September 2024.

Many districts do not foresee this reality.

“I hear from other CTOs across the country that there are leadership groups and school boards saying, ‘You’re good, you don’t need anything else,'” Kelly May-said Vollmar, assistant superintendent of education and technology services for the Desert Sands School District in Southern California, “It’s going well for today, but in a few years, around the same time the money is going. runs out, we’re going to have a big problem on our hands.”

The complication goes beyond the cost of laptops and tablets, added May-Vollmar, whose own district went 1-to-1 several years ago after carefully crafting a sustainability plan.

“You teach teachers how to use [devices],” she says. “You’re teaching kids how to use them. You’re spending a lot of time and money. The investment goes way beyond the cost of the device.

I hear from other CTOs across the country that there are leadership groups and school boards that say, “You’re good, you don’t need anything else. All good for today, but in a few years, around the same time the money runs out, we’re going to have a big problem on our hands.

Kelly May-Vollmar, assistant superintendent of educational technology services for the Desert Sands School District in Southern California.

Now is the time to start planning

Districts don’t usually go on a tech-buying spree. Instead, school systems with a lot of hardware to manage usually have a set replacement cycle. For example, they can trade in a quarter of their old laptops and tablets every year and replace them with new ones. This way, no student typically receives a device that is more than four or five years old, and the district can spread its expenses over a longer period.

But federal relief money — and the immediate need to help children secure devices and internet capability in order to learn virtually — meant many districts bought a slew of laptops, tablets, dots access, or even 3D printers and interactive screens, all at once.

“They had to do some quick spending, and it was a lot of money,” said Diane Doersch, technical project manager at Digital Promise, a nonprofit that works to improve learning through digital technology. more effective use of technology. “But now they’re going to have to start planning: ‘How am I going to split this fleet intelligently so that I don’t have these years of high expenses to replace the whole fleet all at once?'”

If districts don’t think ahead, in four or five years they could be “stuck with a whole bunch of devices that don’t work and no money to replace them,” said Doersch, who previously worked as a director. of technology and information. in Wisconsin.

This is especially problematic because districts are reinventing professional development and curriculum to make the most of new technology. In three or four years, teachers will likely be used to working with laptops and other devices, especially in districts that have gone 1-to-1. It would be a big U-turn to go back to Chromebook carts and computer labs, Doersch said.

Additionally, for some low-income families, the school-provided laptop or tablet is the only device for an entire household.

“I’ve heard of families where it’s the only computer the whole family owns, and mom and dad have been able to apply for jobs on it and, you know, do those other things that the family needs a computer”, Doersch mentioned. While there are federal programs to help families get devices, they can be tricky to navigate, she added.

The first step is to take a close look at the devices you have and how old they are.

One of the first steps many districts need to take in developing a sustainability plan is determining what equipment they already have, how old these devices are, their condition, and their physical location.

Doersch suggests districts spend the next summer analyzing their inventory, asking questions like: What devices have returned from student homes? What didn’t come back? What is damaged but fixable? What needs to be replaced?

Districts must also consider expenses beyond simply replacing and repairing many other devices. For example, if a district buys iPads, the tablets themselves can last up to six years. But the power cords will probably need to be replaced long before that. Interactive whiteboards come with remote controls that run on batteries that will wear out. And so on.

“There are always hidden costs and tentacles,” Doersch said.

But more devices can unlock additional savings elsewhere, she added. For example, if a district has gone 1:1, can it buy fewer textbooks? Save on printing costs? Digitize student documents?

Districts also have the option of seeking external funding. Wichita Kansas Public Schools is working with Verizon Innovative Learning to ensure children in low-income schools can continue to have access to an internet device and services at home – initiatives that were initially funded through programs federal which will probably be eliminated. The district also developed a five-year sustainability plan for the 50,000 devices it purchased with the help of federal relief funding.

Wichita also introduced new software for teaching and learning, including Nearpod, which allows teachers to create digital presentations and share them with student devices, and BrainPOP, which offers online learning games. .

When the federal money runs out, the District may need to take a hard look at its software and phase out any that aren’t used much or are redundant.said Rob Dickson, district chief information officer.

The district may have to agree not to do some things, maybe it’s old software or old program stuff that you don’t use and just say “No, I’m not going to renew that, because I don’t see the use,” he said.

It may ultimately be difficult for many districts to fully mitigate the impact of dwindling federal money, even if they are sustainability-conscious, Doersch said.

“It will be a big challenge, no matter what, because the money that was there will not be there anymore,” she added.

Although school districts invested much of the federal money in new devices, most chose not to use the one-time money to hire additional staff to help with repair, administration and support. technical. Salaries and benefits can be a large, ongoing expense, Doersch said.

This choice left some district IT departments overwhelmed and understaffed, dealing with many more devices but the same number of staff.

Wichita Public Schools’ creative solution to the staffing problem: “We started hiring students to do our technical work,” Dickson said.

The district has partnered with Wichita State University and WSU Tech, another local post-secondary institution, to help train students. Children earn high school credits and dual enrollment credits, plus $15 an hour, in exchange for their work. If the students perform well, Dickson plans to hire some after graduation.

Paint the picture of what it will look like in four years if there is no proper planning

The push towards sustainability may force district technical managers to wear another hat: that of a public relations professional. They will have to convince school boards to fund new technologies to replace the devices purchased in the event of a pandemic once they are obsolete.

Those conversations should start now, May-Vollmar said. When her district launched an individual initiative in 2018, before the pandemic, she had candid discussions about sustainability with the local school board, ultimately persuading members to commit to replacing one-sixth of the district’s appliances each year, like a regular part of the budget.

The district’s tech leaders may need to launch a charm offensive, she said, without watering down the fallout from inaction.

“You have to paint a picture of what it will look like in four or five years, if we don’t have a sustainability plan, and what will be the impact on our students?” she says. “You have to be able to tell that story and you have to be able to tell the story now, before you’re in a position where it’s an immediate need because the technology doesn’t come cheap.”

To make his point in Desert Sands, a neighborhood with students from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds, May-Vollmar collected data on the number of students with quality internet access and a home device. She worked methodically, promoting her plan first to the school board and then to principals, teachers, parents and students.

Equity was at the center of his speech. She told the school community that when students return home, “if they have a device and internet connectivity, the world of learning is open to them. [If they] don’t have that, they’re limited to what’s in their manual.

Certainly, developing a long-term sustainability plan and selling it to district managers is a huge commitment for already stretched IT departments.

But that has become the nature of the work of district technical directors these days.

“Starting with the pandemic, technology leaders have had to do more than manage boxes and cables,” Doersch said. “They were the visionaries. They had to build a strategy. Everything seemed to depend on technology. And so their leadership game has been upped, most definitely.

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