School & District Management

K-12 Device ‘Arms Race': Philly School District’s ‘Heaven Sent’ Chromebooks For Coronavirus Closures

April 14, 2020 4 min read
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By the end of this week, the School District of Philadelphia is planning to have finished the monumental logistical task of handing out 40,000 brand new Chromebooks to students just in time for online instruction to begin April 20.

But exactly how the 130,000-plus student district was able to score the Chromebooks amid unprecedented demand for K-12 laptops highlights a new reality: districts across the country are scrounging and competing against each other, tooth and nail in some cases, for every device available during the mass-remote learning movement unfolding as a result of coronavirus facility closures.

With the final shipment of devices arriving at district headquarters last week, Philadelphia will be among the lucky districts able to secure the number of devices it ordered.

That’s not the case everywhere, even for some sizable school districts with procurement purchasing power. Take Denver Public Schools, which ordered 9,000 Chromebooks to fill gaps for students needing take-home devices during Colorado’s school closings. The district received 3,000, and delivery on the rest is up in the air.

“Every school district is competing for the same pool of available devices. We were happy to secure the 3,000 devices,” said Jason Rand, director of field services for the department of technology at the roughly 90,000-student district in Denver. “Our vendors have been working to provide us some priority, but it’s still going to be a lag.”

And while Philadelphia’s rushed device acquisition seems headed for a happy ending, it wasn’t always clear whether the district would be able to equip every student with a device who needs one.

Just ask Melanie Harris, the district’s chief information officer. She called the acquisition of the devices nothing short of “heaven sent.”

“I honestly was about to have a panic attack,” said Harris, whose first attempt to procure the tens of thousands of laptops fell flat. “I felt like I was behind the arms race.”

By the time the Philadelphia district decided to move forward with a large device purchase, Harris said her team was behind the curve. She had been talking to districts about their device plans, and most of them moved forward quickly, including New York City’s acquisition of 300,000 iPads.

But when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all schools closed for two weeks in mid-March, the Philly school district said it would not offer remote learning, citing equity concerns. The situation evolved quickly as the temporary shutdown turned into closures for the rest of the school year. And it became clear the district was going to need a lot of new devices.

Harris started making phone calls.

One was to Philadelphia-based Comcast. Already in talks with the cable giant about providing Internet for students during school closures, Harris said the district was looking for the “biggest bang I could get for my buck,” and asked about $125 refurbished devices that Comcast sells to schools.

She was too late: “They told me that every other district in the country had been asking and we don’t have any left. But we’ll keep you in mind.”

Comcast kept its word. Not long after talking with the company, Harris said she got a call and Comcast put her in touch with one of their resellers who had 40,000 Chromebooks available. Harris said her reaction was instant.

“I told them I’ll make a blood pinky promise that I’ll take them,” she said, adding that the school board approved the purchase and contracts were signed and finalized within four days without “skipping any part of the legitimate acquisition process.”

The board approved spending $11 million to buy up to 50,000 devices. But Harris said they targeted 40,000 laptops to fill needs, and now if the district wants to increase its order the vendor has informed them it’ll be four to six weeks before new inventory is available.

A day after the Philly district received the official green light to buy the laptops, another shot of good news rolled in: Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, and his family, donated $5 million for district device purchases.

The plan now, Harris said, is to get a laptop in the hands of every student who needs one by Friday. But to do that, the district needed a little more help -- and this time it arrived from a local businessman and his squad of beer trucks.

Normally, device acquisitions are sent directly to the schools. But with all of Philadelphia’s schools closed, Harris said the district stood up a makeshift warehouse and shipping operation in the basement of its administration building to unload and store what would amount to 280 pallets of Chromebooks.

That’s where the beer trucks come in. Bell Beverage owner Frank Bell provided a fleet of semi-trucks, some wrapped with the Coors Light logo, and a team of drivers to redistribute the laptops from the district’s building to schools around the city. There were also district employees who stuffed their own personal vehicles with devices and made runs to schools.

Families are retrieving the laptops from the schools.

“It has been a hands on effort,” Harris said. “My brain cannot even wrap around the amount of effort this has all taken.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.