/Mississippi is getting devices to every child That’s just the first step

Mississippi is getting devices to every child That’s just the first step

Oct. 1, 2020 Nearly 400,000 MacBooks, Chromebooks, iPads and other devices are en route to students and teachers across Mississippi – a massive undertaking prompted by the state Legislature and implemented by the Mississippi Department of Education. A device is just one of the many obstacles that rural schools face. Students may not have internet access in some areas, such as those where there are frequent rainstorms. Carey Wright, the State Superintendent of Education, says that while it will be difficult to ensure students have access to the internet and that educators receive the training they require, the state has shown that it is capable of doing extraordinary things even in times of crisis. They were able to do so by securing devices for all Mississippi students and teachers – while distance learning technology was in high demand worldwide because of the pandemic. The Mississippi Legislature provided $200 million in July to assist schools with virtual learning, both before and after the pandemic. The $150 million allotted to schools will be used to purchase devices and technology, with the $50 million remaining for expanding broadband access in areas that have little or no internet. In an interview with Mississippi Today, Wright stated that “I have spoken to people all over the country and there is no one doing something as detailed, thorough, or as coherent as Mississippi’s.” Brent Engelman is the director of education data, information systems, at the Council of Chief State School Officers. This national organization is made up of heads of state education departments. Engelman stated that Mississippi is leading the charge in closing the digital divide, ensuring teachers and students have the tools they need to learn digitally. “Importantly Mississippi has focused not only on wireless access and devices but also funded the curriculum and professional education needed to support this use. The immediate challenge is to ensure that children in rural areas have access to the internet. The first semester of school is almost over, as teachers and students wait for their devices. It has never been clearer how the gap between those who have access to modern technology and those who don’t is growing. Yazoo County School district had enough devices to allow all 1,384 students to use them within a few weeks. This is a good scenario for a school that does not have “one-to one” technology, meaning that every student has a device. As with most districts, they still have to wait for their updated devices. They placed an order under the Equity in Distance Learning Act. The district continues to use the equipment it already has, although some of the equipment is old. Some teachers and students had to learn the new learning management system, applications and devices. This caused a delay. Andrea Edgecombe, an interventionist for elementary students at Bentonia Gibbs Elementary school in Yazoo County is Andrea Edgecombe. She has been teaching for six years and now she works with students in small groups who are academically struggling. She currently has 19 traditional and 14 virtual students. This year, the Yazoo County Schools District will be implementing a hybrid school model with all-virtual learning. There have been some positives about her experience with distance education, such as the ability to set her own hours so that she can concentrate on virtual learners during her mornings and the fact that she and her students have easy access to their devices. However, there are still many challenges. She said that there are many internet problems (on the part the students) and lots of difficulties with the younger children and the schedule. “They have a set time to hop on Zoom every day with me, and I generally have anywhere from five to ten no-shows a day depending upon the day.” Other issues include students being kicked of Zoom, excessive delays, and, for students who live in rural areas – a loss or internet service when it rains. Edgecombe also serves as technology liaison at her school. She said that although she is pleased with the new apps and the accompanying professional development, the device itself has not been trained. She said that some teachers aren’t as familiar with the Chromebooks of students and laptops, making it more difficult for them to answer parents’ questions. “In the same way, it would have been great if we could’ve launched some kind of virtual town hall for parents (as well)” Edgecombe said that while she is happy that everyone will receive new devices through the Equity in Distance Learning Act funds, there is concern that there will be a new learning curve once they get them. It’s scary that when these new computers are available, they might be different from what parents and children are used to. She said that then we will have to re-teach all. “I hope all our apps work the same way on the new devices,” she said. The district in Holmes County Consolidated Schools District is entirely virtual. After placing an order with other Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act funds, all students received their devices in August. Teachers had also been provided new laptops during the previous school year. Although the district has made every effort to improve student access, including placing hot spots in school buses and apartments throughout the county for wireless access during the pandemic, there are still hurdles. Kristie Montgomery, Ravi Dutt, and other teachers at Holmes County Central High School agree that virtual learning has been challenging due to weather-related internet outages and attendance issues. Students have been seen logging in to classes from their cars, or even on their front porches using borrowed WiFi. They said that students who miss virtual classes usually return to class within a few days after their teacher has called the parent. One student logged into class from the backseat in a car while she was driving. I asked her why she was in the backseat of a car. She replied, “Mr. Dutt, my mother doesn’t want me alone at home, and there’s no one at home, so I asked her why she was sitting in a car. They came up with a system. The mother park her car under a tree and goes to work. The student then logs in from the backseat. Dutt said, “It was very touching for me to see how hard she works to log in to her classroom.” Montgomery, who is a mother to around 100 students and a colleague on maternity leaves, says that despite some hiccups in the beginning, she feels she’s getting into a groove. She said that although it was overwhelming at first, it has become almost like a routine. Wright, the state superintendent and other state officials said that as more devices arrive, the emphasis will shift to other areas that can help educators implement distance learning effectively. Wright claims that the combination of curriculum, professional development, and expanding connectivity are the keys to not only students staying on top during the COVID-19 epidemic but also improving the inequalities that existed before it. The state Legislature allocated $150 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to the effort in July. Administrators at the Mississippi Department of Education started an effort that would normally take one or more years. They completed it in six weeks. The department completed six weeks of needs assessments in every school district. They also developed minimum specifications for the technology. Many webinars were held with school directors and technology directors. Finally, they ordered a large number of devices from CDWG (a technology solutions provider company located in Illinois). Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today Report For America Schools were able choose from three types of devices: Windows laptops and Google Chromebooks, or Apple MacBooks or iPads. These devices are the first step in implementing the Equity in Distance Learning Act. It also includes components for professional development for teachers, curriculum, and teacher education. J.C. Lawton is the director of information systems for Columbus Municipal School District. He said that his district will use the funds to give devices to students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. High school students already have their own devices. Lawton stated that despite some minor hiccups (such as not being able research the device thoroughly before purchasing it), the purchase experience was positive. Lawton said, “I’m thrilled to be able put 2,700 devices into students’ hands.” Equity in Distance Learning Act set a deadline for all devices to be delivered by Nov. 20. Otherwise, school districts would not receive reimbursement. Officials at the state education division say that the devices are meeting the deadline. John Kraman, chief Information Officer of the Mississippi Department of Education told the State Board of Education last week that there was a global drought on Chromebooks and that 90% of their (Mississippi) order is on the ground in the United States. Wright is optimistic that there will be no delays in meeting the delivery deadline. This is partly due to Mississippi’s bulk purchasing power, which is ordering all devices from school districts in one place instead of each school district ordering individual products. Wright said that she has seen supply chains across the country break down and that CDWG was on top in Mississippi. Because of the size (of the order), that’s been a huge plus. If we had just given the money to districts, every district would have been its separate entity. “I’m glad that we did it the right way.” However, some school districts went it alone. Ken Barron is the superintendent of Yazoo County Schools District. Barron stated that “we weren’t going sit around and wait” to see the Legislature or MDE. His school district had 40% of its students choose the virtual option. Barron stated that his district held a reverse auction, which produced such a high price that he decided to replace all the devices in the district. Barron stated that they were expected to arrive in October as of late September. Stacey Graves is the chief financial officer for DeSoto County Schools District. She said that her district participated in Mississippi Connects and it worked well. She said, “What we’re getting is just unbeatable.” “I’m getting 27,770 units for just over $3.8million,” which is an average $137 per device. Graves appreciated the device’s specifications, which included insurance and cases. She said that the devices come with all you need, as well as special insurance in case a child drops them. “In the first weeks of distance learning, four students dropped their devices,” Graves said. However, Graves acknowledged that it was difficult to determine why certain students are not able to access the internet. Graves said that while we surveyed all students at registration, we didn’t know which students don’t have internet connectivity. “We are currently working to gather that information to determine how to best connect each student.” Phillip Burchfield was the executive director of Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. He oversaw the Clinton Public School district’s transition to a “one-to-one” school district, which means one device per student. Superintendents are concerned about the durability of the devices, he said. Burchfield stated that virtual learning takes time and teachers need to be able to use it properly. “So, by the time that we were making progress (on this front), our hardware and computers will be on their last legs. Superintendents are concerned about where the money will come from. Are those funds going to be handed to school districts already struggling with budgets? 80% of the cost of the devices were covered by the state education department, while districts were expected match 20%. Although the Legislature encouraged schools to use federal funds to pay 20%, some districts faced higher costs. Columbus Municipal is an example. The school district had to spend $467,738 more from its reserves in order to pay for its order. This is a significant expense for a district with just over 3,500 students. As the devices purchased through this program start arriving, both the state education department and districts are working together. West Point School District was the first to get its order. Tate County School District will receive its order on Friday. Wright said, “Now we must pivot to ensure that children are learning using these new devices,” noting that the department has already established a large team for coordinating statewide professional education for teachers. Wright also stated that the department and the school districts are working together to improve internet access, purchasing data plans and hot spots as well as working with providers. Wright and other educators shared a common theme throughout this pandemic: inequality in education is a significant issue in normal times but has been magnified by COVID-19. Wright stated that the equity issue was front and center when COVID came to an end. You either have internet or not. Either you have an internet connection or not. It shouldn’t be a privilege.”