The Howard County Board of Education unanimously approved the purchase of $2.5 million worth of Chromebook laptops for students during its meeting July 9. The 6,500 new laptops bring the total number of the devices in the Howard County Public School System to approximately 46,500, covering about 80% of the nearly 59,000 students in the public schools.
The purchase was one of three actions the school board took at the meeting while grappling with how to reopen schools this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. The board also pushed back the start of the 2020-21 academic year by two weeks to after Labor Day and moved middle and high schools to a semester-based schedule for the upcoming school year only.
“I am really focused on making certain that our children have the tools to be successful in a virtual environment, not just for COVID but beyond COVID,” Superintendent Michael Martirano said late last month.
Those actions, including the purchase of the Chromebooks, are aimed at enhancing the school system’s ability to institute a fully online learning model if necessary this fall, Martirano said at the school board meeting.
While the board didn’t vote on any reopening plans during the meeting, a primary proposal was to open the school year with students learning online before a slow transition to a hybrid model, with some classes moving into the school, subject to state safety guidelines. That proposal is similar to one adopted last week in the Montgomery County Public Schools system.
“The board has ... provided me with the tools, now with the adjustment of the calendars and the purchase of Chromebooks, to build a completely virtual environment if needed,” Martirano said. “If we’re leading with science and safety first, we need to make certain that the one secure model we have is a completely virtual [one].”
The new purchase of laptops comes after the school system purchased 20,000 Chromebooks for $5.7 million in late March as school buildings across the state were closed due to the coronavirus.
“I found myself at a challenge on March 13 [after schools were closed] because we did not have enough Chromebooks to do what we needed to do,” Martirano said.
No matter the model the school system chooses, whether it’s fully online or hybrid, Martirano said it would be more “robust” than the spring due to students and teachers being more comfortable with the system and the additional purchase of the Chromebooks.
With the purchase, every student in fourth through 12th grades could have a Chromebook, with one in every three students in kindergarten through third grade covered.
“When considering fall programming, we’ve realized the ratio of devices to students impacts the instructional expectations,” said Scott Ruehl, the school system’s director of leadership development. “With this purchase, we would still have 11,000 elementary school students who would need their own devices.”
More Chromebooks mean fewer textbooks, which means “more relevant and timely information” for students, Martirano said.
“When we look at our textbooks, they become majorly obsolete as soon as we distribute them,” Martirano said in late June. “We need to wean ourselves away from textbooks and to use open-source information and to load our Chromebooks with that information. For example, the two pandemics that we have going on right now — the pandemic of racism and the pandemic of COVID — none of those topics will be memorialized in the current textbooks sitting in our schools waiting for us to return. Those topics will have to be built by using open-source information that our teachers are able to get from the internet.”
To pay for the Chromebooks, the school system plans to take $1.5 million out of a COVID-19 contingency reserve set up in the fiscal 2021 budget and reallocate $1 million that could come from not having to purchase as many textbooks. The school system will also apply for grants this summer for funding to help alleviate the cost of the purchase and to fund future Chromebooks.
“If we’re able to get funding, that could not only reimburse us for this $2.5 million spending, but we may be able to get additional funds to support the deficit we have with needing Chromebooks at the elementary level,” Jahantab Siddiqui, chief administrative officer for the school system, said during the meeting.
Justin Benedict, information technology executive director, said one of the grants the school system is hoping to be awarded is for $1.5 million to buy an additional 3,500 Chromebooks. That purchase could provide every third grader with a device.
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Also during the meeting:
- The new student member of the board, Zach Koung, a rising Howard High School senior, was sworn in at the beginning of the meeting.
- Martiano announced that he met with Howard County graduates and students about racism in the school system. About a month ago, the school system and the Board of Education received a 100-page petition from former and current students about structural racism in Howard schools, which included about 50,000 words of testimony.
- Martirano said the school system handed out more than 30,000 meals to students in the first week of its summer meals program, which began July 1. The 14 meal sites will serve Grab-and-Go summer meals from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday to Friday through Aug. 14. For more information, go to news.hcpss.org/news-posts/2020/06/hcpss-offers-free-meal-service-through-summer-2020. In the spring, the school system provided more than a million meals to students.