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Anne Arundel schools to use CARES Act funds to buy more Chromebooks, online system to replace Google Classroom

With the fall semester inching closer, Anne Arundel County Public Schools are using federal grant money to respond to the pandemic and prepare for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year.

At the July 22 Anne Arundel Board of Education meeting, Superintendent George Arlotto presented the fall reopening plan and further details on how the school system will spend through the Coronavirus Aide, Relief and Economic Security Act.

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County schools, including private and nonprofit schools, received a little over $11 million with the school system receiving nearly $10.3 million, according to officials.

The money is to be used specifically to address coronavirus-based needs.

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“We basically had to pivot and flip our business model 180 degrees such that we were able to now deliver the content — that we used to deliver under our roof — but now do it remotely,” Chief Operating Officer Alex Szachnowicz said.

The school system plans on spending the money to order Chromebooks, purchase a learning management system and provide professional development for teachers and students, he said.

Chromebooks

By July, the school system owned 63,000 devices and ordered 30,000 more, according to Arlotto’s presentation.

The goal is to have a one-to-one ratio with every student in the school system using a Chromebook. So far, the school system distributed 13,000 Chromebooks.

If schools are able to safely enter a hybrid model, in which students would learn remotely on some days and return to school buildings on other days, the Chromebooks would still be assigned to each student almost like a textbook, Szachnowicz said.

The $9,054,000 cost of the devices is the largest expense out of the three areas of funding.

Learning Management System

To bolster the online learning environment for schools, the system is purchasing a learning management system as a way to tailor an online platform to better fit the school system and the curriculum offered. The school system budgeted $880,000 out of federal funding to pay for a learning management system.

The system, which would replace Google Classroom, would be more manageable for live instruction, more secure and personalized to school system.

“A learning management system is a little bit like a big library, in a way, and all of our content can be uploaded on it,” Szachnowicz said.

“The curriculum that we have, links to books and magazines and videos and all the stuff that a youngster would need in a virtual environment can basically be uploaded to it.”

The learning management system will also support an electronic version of a classroom setting and be controlled by the school system in a secure environment, he said.

Once the school system purchases the software, there will still be a transition period between using Google Classroom and adapting to the new management system, said Manager of Academics and Strategic Initiatives and Assessments Shannon Pugh.

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Even so, the ability to have a more structured synchronous learning environment is an exciting one, she said.

For the fall semester, school officials said online learning will look very different from the spring as schools rely on feedback from parents and teachers, especially those who have taught this summer.

Pugh met with some teachers who taught summer programs and heard how live instruction worked for teachers and for their students.

One teacher in particular talked about the youngest group of students, kindergarten through 2nd grade.

“She said as soon as (students) figured out or were showed a couple of times how to do something, she was like ‘They’re just such digital natives, they figured it out really quickly,‘” Pugh said.

Part of the transition is to translate in-person learning models like small reading groups or a general class session of 20 students into the online learning format. School officials and teachers will also have to create activities and assignments to engage students as part of remote learning.

“Everyone is still in a state of learning so whether I’m a teacher or a student, I’m learning these great new tools. I’m learning what works and what doesn’t work — that’s the same in the classroom,” Pugh said.

The school system anticipates presenting a final vendor for approval at the August school board meeting.

Professional Development

To help with the transition from Google Classroom to a tailored system, students and teachers will receive training on how to use the new learning management system.

“We’re not going to just buy the system but we’re going to install the system. Then we’re going to populate it, we have to upload the content and data and all the security protocols and then we’re going to have to train folks on how to use it,” Szachnowicz explained.

The goal is to avoid a long learning curve and to get school communities familiar and comfortable with the learning system, he said.

For professional development, the school system budgeted $331,000 out of the federal grant money.

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