When the school day ended on March 13, Durham teachers and staff packed their bags, turned off lights and locked doors as if it was any other weekend.
Instead, it was an unplanned last day of school for students, one without celebrations or yearbook handouts. Efforts to control the spread of coronavirus shut down Durham’s public schools for the rest of the year.
Although schools mailed or handed out supplemental learning packets to students, none of the work within was required. Final grades were awarded based on the coursework finished before March 13.
Uncertain what the start of the new school year will look like, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga knows one thing for sure: Every student will participate in online learning. The district has purchased 20,016 new Chromebooks to make this goal possible.
“The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that we have to aggressively attack the digital divide in our community,” Mubenga said in a press release.
Finding ways to expand access to digital learning is not a new conversation in the district. Durham has lagged slightly behind the average performance of North Carolina public schools on its supply of digital devices.
A 2018-2019 state report card counted one digital device per 1.1 students in Durham schools, compared to a state average of one device per 0.9 students. The district’s five-year strategic plan calls for 100 percent of all “teachers, leaders, and staff” to use technology to advance student learning by 2023.
When schools closed due to coronavirus, that expedited the conversation to find a way to make sure every student in grades K-12 had access to a school computer.
The price tag to purchase the Chromebooks and charging carts is $7,848,357. Board of Education members authorized these purchases unanimously at an emergency meeting on May 28.
The first step was buying the devices. The second challenge will be ensuring that all students can connect to the internet at school and at home. The scale of the digital divide in Durham is significant, and one that the school district hopes to not tackle alone.
Board members will look to the county for assistance in what they estimate will be an additional $3 million project.
DPS will also be looking to the public to help cover some costs. The DPS Foundation will announce a campaign shortly to raise money for implementing a curriculum with the devices.
Without instruction for parents and students, devices serve no purpose, said Magan Gonzales-Smith, executive director of the foundation, a nonprofit that supports DPS.
“Realizing digital equity for students goes beyond providing everyone with a device and internet, we must think about the holistic picture,” she said.
That includes training teachers, providing tech support to students and families, and reinforcing learning conditions in homes, Gonzales-Smith said. Another factor to consider is support for non-English speaking students.
The Chromebook order needed to be placed before June 1 to ensure they arrive before the start of the 2020-21 school year, which is so far scheduled for August 3. Reserve funds were used to make the purchase.
The district will receive $11.8 million from the federal CARES Act, according to Mubenga’s comments in the May 28 meeting, to partially fund the project. When DPS receives the CARES funding, it will replenish the reserves spent.
The number of Chromebooks needed at schools varies, Benjamin Brown, executive director of IT for DPS, said at the meeting. The School for Creative Studies, a magnet school in northeast Durham, and the City of Medicine Academy, a magnet school near Duke Regional Hospital, have indicated they will not need any new purchases.
Six schools, however, will need over 1,000 new Chromebooks each. That includes C.E. Jordan High School, Durham School of the Arts, Hillside High School, Northern High School, Riverside High School and Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.
The district purchased all Chromebooks from Lenovo Solutions for $360.75 each and 566 laptop charging carts from CDWG for $1,128 per cart.
The Chromebooks are portable laptops with a touch screen. While kindergarten students might be learning to write their names on touchscreens, seniors might be typing lab reports on keyboards.
In addition to discussing broadband access, board members expect to discuss implementing systems for teaching online later this month.
At top: After Durham schools closed in March, teachers and staff reached out to students they were suddenly separated from where they could. Photo by Henry Haggart