The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the abilities of school districts to provide a device to every student and of students to access learning from nearly anywhere at any time.
Now, to help make up for lost instruction time during the 2020-21 school year, more school systems are allowing and even encouraging students to bring their school-issued devices home over the summer. There are layers of benefits, education leaders said, including the opportunity to reduce summer slide by providing equitable access to continual academic content over the summer months.
“We all know learning gaps are huge, and that's our concern right now,” said Matthew Willey, chief technology officer for Perry Township Schools in Indianapolis. “It really comes down to providing any opportunity we can to try and help those kids get caught back up.”
But there are also major technology management considerations and costs for overseeing device take-home programs. Safety — for both students and the devices — is at the top of that list.
Education leaders are also trying to balance messages to families and students that while students should be encouraged to log in and keep their math and reading skills fresh, they should also turn off the screens and play outside after a year of quarantining and social isolation.
Doug Casey, executive director of the Connecticut State Commission for Educational Technology, said although students' access to technology over the summer has academic advantages, “if we're talking about this particular summer, what I am seeing is a real emphasis on social and emotional learning, getting kids outside, getting them socialized, and allowing them just to be kids this summer.”
Managing a growing number of devices
School systems are managing a growing number of devices, and while that was a known pre-pandemic trend, the responsibility rose sharply as more districts added devices to their inventories during the global health crisis.
This year, 49% of districts are supporting more than 7,500 devices, up from 2020 when 33% of districts managed that many devices, according to the Consortium for School Networking's 2021 EdTech Leadership Survey Report. The devices referred to in these figures include not only laptops and tablets for students, but other campus-based hardware such as smart HVAC systems.
The same CoSN report, based on a national survey of K-12 IT leaders, found concerns about insufficient staffing for providing remote support to students and families and for instructional support for classroom use.
“We were prepared with devices, hotspots, video training on how to use them and our online systems in a timely manner — what we were not prepared for were the non-stop help desk calls for the entire time we were shut down,” read the comment of one survey respondent.
Summer has typically been a school system’s opportunity to collect, assess, clean, repair and update school-issued devices in order to get devices in ideal working status for the next school year. When devices are with students 365 days a year, those necessary tasks are more difficult to staff and organize.
Perry Township Schools has narrowed its summer turnaround time for individual device “blackout periods” from several days or weeks to one hour, said Willey. Those downtimes allow tech teams to check the optimization of the device and make updates with academic content the student will access in the upcoming school year. The district is managing about 15,000 devices, Willey said.
Summertime also gives IT staff opportunities to do inventory and account for missing devices. If a student withdraws from the school system and hasn’t returned the device, Perry Township Schools can remotely disable it, Willey said.
Richland School District Two in Columbia, South Carolina, which has about 28,000 students, offers parents an opt-in $20 annual device protection plan that waives the cost of the first incidence of a lost or broken device. The repair or replacement cost for the second incident would be the responsibility of the family, though the school district can waive or reduce those costs based on a family’s circumstances, said Tom Cranmer, the district’s chief technology and innovation officer.
Because there’s a constant churn of devices and students, it’s important for districts to have robust systems for checking inventory and the security of devices, said Cranmer. The district has tech support and technology learning coaches available to staff, students and families.
Perry Township Schools does not offer parents a device protection plan for lost or damaged devices but has hosted drive-through device swaps where parents can return a broken device and pick up a new one. Purchasing hard shell cases for devices has cut down on the incidences of broken screens and lost devices, Willey said
“Anytime something doesn't work, it becomes much more likely to get lost or broken,” he said.
Extending learning opportunities
What districts should do when taking all these issues into consideration is to view school-issued devices “not as a sunk cost to school systems, but as an operational investment into creative ways to provide students with learning opportunities,” said Casey, who is also chair of the board of directors for the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
Casey encouraged schools to offset the cost of these recurring technology investments by using devices and apps in creative ways, such as leveraging free and open educational resources (OER) when possible, rather than always paying for commercial curriculum products, and encouraging the use of adaptive software for student home use.
Indeed, educators in many districts that have sent devices home with students over the summer have provided suggested online activities that are either part of the school year curriculum or supplemental and enrichment activities, such as typing and foreign language programs.
Online activities that are self-paced and adaptive to students’ performance levels can be powerful tools to strengthen students’ individual areas of need, Casey said.
Chuck Holland, Richland’s director of instructional technology, said the district has software that can analyze what online resources students are accessing over the summer. The district will use that information to make improvements, he said.
Another activity the Richland district did last year to help the school community become more comfortable with remote learning and take-home devices was to give a mock remote class lesson to the district’s school board. “The board members really, really liked that, and they really were able to get a solid understanding of what the possibilities were for e-learning,” said Cranmer.
Even a district’s device management program can be a learning opportunity for students. In Perry Township, high school student volunteers help repair broken school-issued Chromebook screens, which offers the district a valuable service and teaches the students technical skills, Willey said.
With the growing number of devices leaving campuses, districts are now having to provide tech support year-round, seven days a week. Many districts had support hotlines during remote learning, and as districts consider the need to sustain 1:1 programs and allow students to take devices home for weekends and holiday breaks, tech support for students and families will also need to continue, Casey said.
Perry Township Schools found another surprising benefit of allowing students to keep devices over the summer — students are logged in and familiar with navigating the learning platforms as soon as they walk in on the first day of school. The district used to spend weeks at the start of the school year distributing devices and teaching students how to use them, Willey said.
“We're hoping to really bring back two to three weeks worth of education that would normally be on the computer," he said.