All students at Shelby County Schools should have a laptop or tablet by November. The distribution starts in August.
The school board voted 8-1 at a special session on Monday to approve $ 11 million for a four-year lease for Microsoft and Apple tablets for college students. The decision was in line with Superintendent Joris Ray's $ 37 million plan, which allows all students to learn online. The board will vote separately on other parts of the plan, including buying hotspots so that students can go online when they don't have internet access at home.
Coronavirus school closings underscored the lack of Internet access for many Memphis families, and Ray said he wanted to use this time to fill the gap and prepare for possible future closures. Ray also said there is more to do.
"A device is just a device. One device doesn't replace a teacher,” he said. According to Ray, the staggered distribution in three rounds between August and November corresponds to the ability of the computer companies to provide the devices.
District officials have said autumn classes could be personal, online, or a combination of both. Further details are expected in early July after a Community Task Force Ray made recommendations. School is scheduled to start on August 10th. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that school buildings may need to be closed again if coronavirus infections increase significantly.
"If COVID continues to rise or we may have to shut down again ... I want a unified method to develop an orchestrated strategy for children," Ray told the board members. "And again we don't make devices because of COVID. We make devices because this is the model we talked about in 2019."
The plan comes more than a week after board members asked for more details about how student learning could improve with the technology. They stressed that technology access alone would not ensure that students can learn from home.
On Monday, the district announced that classes for first-semester material would be recorded for all grades. The lessons are then downloaded to the laptops and tablets if the district has to switch to online learning. The recordings will allow teachers to "focus their time on individual learning, small groups, and student wellbeing," the district's presentation said.
Antonio Burt, the chief academic officer, said the district plans to continue using Microsoft Teams to provide online tasks and instructions. In the past few weeks, Burt said the district had trained about half of its teachers on the platform, and further training is planned. In the long term, a core group of around 250 teachers will record model classes throughout the year and supervise other teachers in the first transition years.
The district also plans to launch online training for Microsoft teams for parents with computer access this month and continue throughout the year. Each school also appoints student leaders who learn online etiquette and teach other students how to protect their privacy.
Board members questioned ongoing training as employees and families adapt to the technology, but were largely satisfied with the additional details compared to last week.
"I know that our students are resilient and always come to the table when we show them that they are important to us," said board member Stephanie Love.
Board member Kevin Woods asked Ray to work with community groups to train parents and students on how to best use the devices.
"This will make our people extremely thin," said Woods.
Board member Scott McCormick, the only dissident, said he supported the idea, but did not think the plan was robust enough to be implemented.
"I think if we don't do it right, we can do more harm than good," said McCormick. "I am not convinced that we have the means to implement this program and the means to maintain this plan year after year. I am afraid we will bite off more than we can chew."