The Austin Independent School District in Texas spent three years on a 1:1 initiative to get tech devices into the hands of every student in grades 8-12.
But on March 13, when the coronavirus pandemic forced its schools to shift from in-person classes to remote learning, it soon became apparent that wasn’t going to be enough.
“We didn’t know then what we know now. But we, I think rightly, saw this was going to be a longer-term problem rather than a shorter-term problem,” said Kevin Schwartz, the district’s technology officer for learning and systems.
Using district funds set aside for crises, Schwartz’s team quickly purchased 24,000 iPads and 6,000 Chromebooks, and also handed out 15,000 Chromebooks that were already in school buildings. Now, as the district prepares to continue remote schooling, all students — even preschoolers — will be equipped with a device.
One-to-one programs like Austin ISD’s — named for their aim to provide one device per student — have been growing in popularity in recent years, with advocates touting the strategy as a way to boost blended learning opportunities and help bridge the digital divide.
Since March, the trend “has been put on steroids,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN. And now, districts are grappling with a whole host of challenges — from supply shortages to cybersecurity concerns — that may impact them for years to come.
The impacts of rushing
In a CoSN survey conducted from November to January, 49% of the more than 500 responding school districts reported having 1:1 programs, according to the organization’s 2020 report on education technology.
These programs were most common at the middle- and high-school levels, with 69% and 66% of schools reporting each student had either a district-issued or personal device, respectively. And 43% of elementary schools had implemented 1:1, with an additional 30% establishing a goal to do so.
Schwartz said 1:1 has improved participation rates in online learning in Austin, and also improved families’ access to social-emotional supports, important news and information. But generally, these programs take time to implement properly.
“There’s a certain set of things that you really have to do” — things like teacher and student training and planning for sustainability, said Schwartz, who has led three districts through 1:1 implementation. “We used to allow about a year and a half to do those things in advance of ever getting a device in a kid’s hands.”
Now, districts don’t have that luxury.
Doug Levin, president of the consulting firm EdTech Strategies, said school districts are doing the best they can under uncertain circumstances. Districts are largely using rainy day funds or money from their states and the federal government for COVID-related K-12 relief efforts. But “where they’re able to cut corners, they cut corners,” he said.
Some are opting for free online tools without the best track records or purchasing refurbished devices with substandard specs.
“These would be devices that they wouldn’t be purchasing now unless they couldn’t get their hands on anything else," Levin said. "Those are more likely to break down, they’re more likely to experience trouble in an online learning environment so they might, for instance, have not enough memory."
The rush toward mobility has also brought up cybersecurity concerns. Levin has seen an uptick in denial of service attacks, in which a school system’s programs get flooded with malicious traffic, as well as Zoom bombing, where online trolls have joined virtual classes or school board meetings with the sole purpose of disrupting them.
“[Cybersecurity] has largely not been a priority, and so therefore, staff aren’t used to taking the extra steps — and it is extra steps — to protect their computers and protect access to systems,” Levin said. “Since the priority has been just getting access to tools and not sort of protecting them, that’s what we’ve gotten.”
Some districts are finding it difficult to get devices at all.
Amid rampant shortages, the 94,000-student Denver Public Schools and others have also been impacted by a Chinese human rights scandal and had their devices seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
DPS spokeswoman Winna MacLaren said the district ordered 12,500 Lenovo devices that had been manufactured by one of 11 Chinese companies sanctioned in late July for being complicit in the forced labor and abuse of Muslim minority groups.
MacLaren said in an email the district will not do business with companies that “knowingly violate human rights or support forced labor.”
Yet the repercussions have dealt the district a huge blow.
“We anticipate thousands of DPS students, including a large portion of our youngest students, will be forced to start the school year remotely, without access to technology, if we are unable to secure devices. This will put our most vulnerable further behind,” she said.
Meanwhile, the district — which began a 1:1 program with a $10 million bond initiative in 2016 — is scouring schools, offices and warehouses for extra devices and asking alumni and other former students to mail in those they no longer need. Staff are also providing guidance for families who plan to purchase personal devices.
For many school districts, the biggest challenge to 1:1 implementation is internet access.
Six percent of children ages 3 to 18 in 2018 had no internet access at home, and another 6% had it only through a smartphone, according to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In Prince George’s County Public Schools in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., more than half of students are from low-income households and have limited access to resources, including broadband, said Gabrielle Brown, a district spokeswoman.
“The pandemic has only exacerbated this issue for those families,” she said in an email. “Therefore, connecting with students and ensuring they have internet access has been a challenge.”
PGCPS had no formal 1:1 initiative in place before the pandemic, and very few students actually took school-provided devices home, Brown said.
The district allocated $2 million from its budget in April, received grants and donations from the business community, and partnered with Comcast and Verizon to provide internet connectivity for families in need, as well as an expected 130,000 devices for students.
Krueger said districts are making “Herculean efforts” toward 1:1 for the upcoming school year, yet devices are only one piece of the puzzle.
“The connectivity is the hardest thing to solve,” he said, because it often comes with monthly payments for families and pricey short-term solutions schools are using to help mitigate the issue in the current crisis, rather than the one-time cost of a Chromebook.
CoSN has advocated for Congress to invest more money in the issue and help create a more equitable environment for kids to learn — especially now. A CoSN survey in May showed 87% of respondents were concerned about off-campus internet connectivity as an “urgent problem that must be solved."
There’s no going back, Krueger said; computers have become the new textbook, as far as what people will expect from schools, and there will always be natural disasters, snow days or sickness that will keep kids from physically attending school.
“I think increasingly parents and the public and teachers and students ... will all expect that things will be delivered digitally and that there will be a device," he added, "and I hope that our country comes to realize the importance of robust internet.”