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Elgin ISD purchases devices for online learning

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    Elgin Elementary School gives out work packets to students in April. If COVID-19 forces the schools to return to remote learning again next school year, Elgin ISD hopes to discontinue physical work packets and teach students online. File photo

To prepare for whatever distance learning challenges the COVID-19 pandemic may present to students and teachers this fall, the Elgin ISD school board approved the purchase of $1.7 million worth of tablets, laptops and mobile internet hotspots during their meeting on Monday, June 15.

The proposal is to purchase 1,000 mobile internet hotspots with unlimited data service through AT&T, 1,325 iPad tablets for all students from pre-kindergarten through second grade, and 1,000 Dell Chromebooks for students from third to fifth grade. Middle school and high school students already have school-issued devices. The iPads cost $537.20 each, the Chromebooks cost $379.56 each for students and $554.29 for teachers, and the mobile hotspots are free, but the data plan and filtering costs $45 per month. The cost totals $1.7 million.

When Elgin ISD had to quickly translate its operations to remote learning, the process was easier for the secondary schools because those students already have devices, Elgin ISD Superintendent Jodi Duron said. However, the transition was still difficult for families who don’t have internet access, whether they live in places with no internet service or they can’t afford it. These devices are needed to allow the schools to transition back into virtual learning again in case another outbreak happens in the fall, Duron added.

“It is a big-ticket price, but this is very important to be prepared for anything when August hits,” she said.

The request for 1,000 mobile hotspot devices is based on the number of families that indicated they didn’t have internet in their homes during a survey that Elgin ISD conducted in March, according to chief technology officer Brian Page.

“With the unknown outlook of COVID-19 cases in Elgin in the future, reopening schools requires us to remain extremely flexible, and being able to pivot quickly to any of those instructional models will become a requirement and a necessity for our families and staff,” Page said.

Board member David Glass asked if it is possible to ensure students are using the mobile internet devices for school work only. Page said the iPads and chromebooks will be filtered through Elgin ISD’s firewall, but they are still working with AT&T to see if the usage of the hotspot devices themselves can be restricted to just the school devices.

Glass also asked if the pandemic has affected the district’s budget for this year. Chief financial officer Debra George responded that they are not sure yet, but it looks like more money will be put into the fund balance because not as much money has been spent as normal by this time of the year. Duron added that there are a lot of different factors that could affect the cost of the pandemic for Elgin ISD; for example, the schools have not spent as much on utilities since less people are in the buildings, but on the other hand, the district is not taking in revenue from athletic events.

“There are a lot of different moving parts that we don’t know, but at the end of the day, we think we’re going to end up on the positive side,” Duron said.

“I’m just a little nervous, spending all of that money and we don’t know what’s happening,” board member J.D. Harkins said.

Glass agreed, saying, “But I certainly support the idea of the kids having the devices.”

Board member Juanita Valarie Neidig remarked that moving to all-digital would also be good for the teachers, who have had to deal with teaching both online and through paper work packets.

“It’s extremely difficult for an instructor to teach both ways, on paper and with remote learning,” Page agreed. “If we can get away from packets to help our teachers, I think that is absolutely the way to go.”

All four action items—to approve the purchase of the mobile internet devices, iPads and Chromebooks and to amend the budget for these three expenses—passed unanimously. Page said the vendor told them that there would be a few weeks of a delay on any order, so they would make the purchase immediately. If the devices arrive by mid-July, that would leave only a month to configure all of the devices.

Last Monday evening, Duron hosted another virtual superintendent’s chat via Zoom to answer questions and address concerns from parents about returning to school in the fall. 

The meeting utilized Thoughtexchange, a platform that can anonymously gather opinions and questions and allow participants rate other participants’ contributions to determine what matters most to the most amount of people. Participants were asked if there are things the school district should consider or rethink as students prepare to return to school in August.

Topics that came up included: measures to keep both students and teachers safe, such as masks and temperature checks; procedures when a student or staff member is diagnosed with COVID-19; how spaces will be cleaned and disinfected; the status of after-school programs; the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR); online distance learning and access to the internet; school meals for students; and social-emotional learning.

During the chat, Duron said a lot of decisions have intentionally not been made yet because the situation is still changing so rapidly. Other school districts that have been ahead in planning for the fall have had to backtrack as more information and state guidance becomes available, she added.

“You have to go slow to go fast,” she said.

Another virtual superintendent’s chat is scheduled for Monday, July 13.