Teachers union president asks school board to go slow on computer plan

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As Harford County Public Schools implement a five-year initiative to provide a tablet-type computer for each student, the Harford teachers union president says that money for that project could be better spent elsewhere.

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, recently told members of the Harford County Board of Education that “the One to One initiative deserves a lot more thinking.”

“While we all want to put technology in folks’ hands and in kids’ hands and we believe they need to have access to the most current ratio, the One-to-One technology may not be that quotient,” Burbey said during the public comment portion of the Oct. 9 school board meeting.

Laura Runyeon, vice president of the Harford County Board of Education, said this week that she respects Burbey’s opinions and concerns.

“It’s an enormous investment and I understand some of his concerns,” Runyeon said Monday. “There is a lot of concern out there about how much digital time students spend in front of computers.”

But the 37,500 students in Harford County Public Schools are going to be competing in a digital world, she said.

“To fail to prepare them for using technology … in a work environment or college environment — we would not be doing them justice,” Runyeon said.

The school system is spending $3.2 million in this fiscal year to supply students in fifth and eighth grades with computers. It has requested $7.6 million in the capital budget for fiscal year 2018-2019 to buy computers for students in fourth, sixth, ninth and 12th grades, as well as for those in 11th grade The computers were supposed to be distributed this year but there was not enough funding, according to Jillian Lader, spokesperson for Harford County Public Schools.

School board member Robert Frisch has urged colleagues to think twice about approving such expenses for technology.

“I caution my colleagues about making a long-term commitment, moving to One to One, when there are plenty of unresolved issues over the validity of such a purchase,” Frisch said at a school board meeting last month.

He questioned whether One to One is really necessary in every classroom in every grade, or if the school system could buy just enough computers to facilitate the mandatory Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC testing.

“Can we accomplish our goal without diving in to a long-term budget hole we commit to by having One to One for every student in every classroom?” he asked.

Runyeon’s daughter is in eighth grade, one of two grades in which each student has his or her own technology this year, the school board member said. Fifth-graders are also assigned individual tablets.

Runyeon’s daughter attends Fallston Middle.

“She told me every day how happy she was to have it, to have the device available to use for a project, other things,” Runyeon, who was appointed to the school board in 2015, said. “What I’ve observed, as a parent, so far, is that it’s being used in a very smart way in the classroom to aid in instruction but not replacing instruction by the teacher in any way.”

Computers or any other technology will never replace having a teacher in the classroom, she said.

“We’re never going to get to the point where students sit in front of a computer and the teacher walks out of the room,” she said.

The devices would be used only at school — they would not go home with students. That means students who don’t have access to technology at home now, still won’t have it, Burbey said.

“They’re not taking it home, using it at home and if they don’t have a computer at home, they’re still not getting all the training they need for this kind of initiative,” he said.

Burbey said he and other teachers are concerned that they have not had the necessary development to implement One to One and that students won’t know how to use the programming.

“And doing that in the classroom is adding more into a rather stuffed 5-pound bag,” he said, referring to the weight and breadth of material teachers must cover over the course of the year.

The school system doesn’t have to have one tablet for each student especially since they’ll be sitting idle for what he said amounts to 20 percent of the day.

“I believe the money would be better spent on less than One-to-One,” Burbey said, urging the school board to give it another look. “Look at various strategies on how to best maximize usage and best efficacy of that significant an investment in technology.”

Runyeon also said students won’t perform as well if they’re required to take standardized tests digitally if they don’t use the technology on a regular basis.

“When students do their testing on digital devices but they have not had the opportunity to use them — at least in part — in preparation for the material they don’t do their best,” Runyeon said.

Harford County Public Schools have been watching other school systems as technology plans have evolved in recent years.

“We didn’t jump on the bandwagon right out of the box,” she said. “We looked at it, evaluated it and looked at a plan we would take a bit of fiscally and we’re doing it in a way that was smart.”

Ultimately, she said, it comes down to making sure Harford County Public Schools students are ready for the future.

“We need to be preparing our students. We need to recognize the environment students will be expected to compete in and we need to prepare them for that,” Runyeon said. “I have faith that we are doing it in a way that’s smart so it does aid instruction, but does not replace the teacher in the classroom.”

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