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Harford schools’ device shortages worse than thought; only fourth- through 12th-grade students will receive them to start

Harford County Public Schools will only be providing devices to students in grades 4 through 12 for at least the first month of the school year, as it looks to overcome manufacturing delays brought on by factory shutdowns and school systems across the country moving to virtual learning.

High school students will still receive laptops, while fourth- through eighth-graders will receive a combination of Chromebooks and laptops, Superintendent Sean Bulson told The Aegis in an interview. Students in kindergarten through third-grade will not be supplied with an HCPS-issued device prior to the start of the school year.

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Teachers will still be delivering live online instruction for all students from kindergarten through 12th grade for any student who can access it, Bulson said in a video statement issued late Friday afternoon. Families who can’t participate in live online learning schedule will have options for asynchronous instruction on their own time.

The school system has received less than half of the 27,000 Chromebook computers for kindergarten through eighth- grade students that were ordered in May.

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School officials did not learn of the delay until Aug. 10, mere hours before the Board of Education approved plans for all virtual instruction. Approximately 15,000 Chromebooks would not be delivered in time for the start of the school year Sept. 8.

“We’ve been working all summer to try to get the schools ready with the devices that were supposed to be coming and then we had to pivot quickly when we learned they weren’t coming,” Bulson said in an interview.

Those Chromebooks are now not expected until mid-October, although they could arrive sooner.

“We have some hope they might be a little bit earlier than that,” Bulson said. “But we only have enough to ensure every student in grades four through 12 [receives one].”

The delays were caused by a combination of factors. Shutdowns in other countries early in the pandemic, particularly in China, where many of the computer processor chips are made, coupled with increased demand as students began remote learning sapped much of the existing supply. Manufacturers are now struggling to keep up with the demand.

Last week, Bulson estimated the school system was still about 3,000 devices short of ensuring all 38,000 students would be equipped with one this fall. That was based on some parents opting out of receiving a device from HCPS and staff scouring for older devices and getting them up and running.

The school system’s three different appeals to the community for opting out of receiving devices did not yield enough to cover those shortfalls, however, and some of the older laptops were in worse shape than anticipated, Bulson said.

“We were trying to cobble together old, broken, out of service devices,” he said. “As our technicians have been out trying to rebuild these devices and get them as quickly as possible up and running, we have far fewer devices than we thought available.”

After learning of the shortages following a virtual meeting with the superintendent, Harford County delegates Mary Ann Lisanti and Steve Johnson have asked local businesses and county residents who don’t have kids in schools to help out and donate laptops if they can.

“We believe that Harford Countians are generous, and they value our educational system, therefore when our students are in need, the call will be answered,” Lisanti and Johnson, both Democrats, wrote in a news release. “We will continue to advocate for our children and help provide families, teacher and administrators with the tools they need during these most difficult times.”

They also asked any residents with specific computer skills that could volunteer to staff a parent technology help desk that they contact the delegates as well.

Elementary school students who had already opted out will not receive a device when they go to their schools to pick up materials like textbooks next week, before the start of the school year.

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“If your student does not have access to a device to start the school year, please communicate that information when you go to the school to pick up your other instructional materials,” Bulson said in Friday’s video.

Younger students not receiving computers who need printed materials will be able to get them from their schools when other supplies are picked up. Bulson emphasized that even parents of students who have already a device at home and opted out of receiving an HCPS device should make sure they are still picking up those materials for instruction.

“There’s a lot more to distribute than just Chromebooks,” he said.

School officials won’t stop trying to recondition laptops it already owns to get them in working order and redeploy them, Bulson said. HCPS is doing everything it can to repair and recondition those computers and exploring other avenues to get laptops into the hands of students, he said.

“We’re not going to stop looking for more devices,” Bulson said.

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