IT Infrastructure

Schools Handed Out Millions of Digital Devices Under COVID-19. Now, Thousands Are Missing

By Benjamin Herold — July 23, 2020 5 min read
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As the coronavirus pandemic hit and public education moved online, school districts across the country rushed to give millions of students laptops, tablets, and Chromebooks, many of which had just been purchased. Now, some of those districts are scrambling to account for all those devices—a task made more urgent by the uncertainty over when students will be able to return to school buildings full-time.

Among the challenges districts are facing: locating and recovering missing devices; making sure clear policies and procedures are in place for distribution, collection, and liability; filing insurance claims for those that can’t be found; and budgeting time and staff to inspect, repair, and sanitize the computers and tablets that do come back before they’re redistributed.

“Buying devices is the easy part,” said William Fritz, the technology director for Sycamore Community Schools outside Cincinnati, Ohio. “The hard part is the day-to-day management of the devices and keeping track of where they are.”

Take, for example, the 77,000-student Greenville County, S.C., school system. The district made headlines earlier this month when it revealed that it had been trying to recover nearly 5,000 of the more than 58,000 Chromebooks that officials there distributed to students last school year. As of Wednesday—the day after the district unveiled a tentative re-opening plan that promises to include heavy doses of online instruction—more than 3,000 of the devices had yet to be returned, district spokesperson Teri Brinkman said in an email.

“We continue to try to reach out to families and simply need to know how and when we can get the devices back to inspect them and prepare them for redistribution in just a few weeks,” Brinkman said. “Because every district in the country had to move to remote learning in the spring, Chromebooks are in short supply. We are much more interested in retrieving devices than in punishing families.”

A Flood of New Devices

During the first part of 2020, shipments of mobile PCs to America’s K-12 school systems were up 28 percent over the year before, according to data from FutureSource Consulting, a U.K.-based market research firm. With schools across the country increasingly signaling that they will start the school year by providing remote instruction, that huge leap in supply is expected to hold constant through the rest of the year.

For some schools, that has meant a shift from carts of devices that were kept inside schools to 1-to-1 computing, in which each student gets his or her own device to take home.

Before the pandemic hit, Greenville County’s schools were already providing students in grades 3 through 12 with their own Chromebooks. The devices cost about $300 apiece. The previous school year, Brinkman said, almost all of the district-issued devices were returned. Just 478 were reported lost, missing, or stolen.

This spring, however, was a different story.

In mid-March, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, announced that all schools in the state would be closed for the remainder of the month. Then, in mid-May, Greenville County schools announced they’d be closed through the end of the year. The shut down threw a major wrench into normal operations.

“Given that we have a portion of our population that is highly transient and buildings were not open, we definitely believe the current situation impacted our [device] return rate,” Brinkman said.

Part of the challenge now is to get reimbursed for the thousands of devices that are still unaccounted for. That will likely require filing an insurance claim. But such a claim will only be honored for those devices that have been reported missing or stolen to local law enforcement.

Ideally, families themselves would file such claims. But last week, the Associated Press reported that Greenville Schools was considering taking matters into its own hands. Officials issued a districtwide phone and email blast to parents stating that “pretty soon, we will have no choice but to notify law enforcement” regarding devices that had not been returned.

Fueling the urgency, the district purchased more than 19,000 additional new Chromebooks earlier this summer with the hope of providing all children from preK through 12th grade with their own device for the coming school year. But meeting that goal will also require inspecting, repairing, and sanitizing existing devices that ordinarily would have been cycled out of use—a process that will take time to be done safely.

Struggles Keeping Track

Other districts around the country have run into similar problems. In Washington state, for example, employees in the technology department of the Spokane Public Schools found district-issued laptops had been posted for sale online.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, officials said in June they still weren’t sure whether students and families would have to pay for lost or missing Chromebooks that were part of a massive $11 million, 50,000-device purchase the district made as part of its bumpy shift to remote instruction.

Such situations point to a longstanding challenge that has been made worse by the coronavirus, said Fritz, the Sycamore Community Schools technology director, who also heads Learn21, a nonprofit organization that doubles as the Ohio chapter of the Consortium for School Networking.

In an ideal world, Fritz said, schools would communicate clear policies and procedures regarding loss, theft, and liability of district-owned devices to parents at the beginning of every school year. Districts would also have a robust digital asset-management system that automatically tracks the location of a device and whether it’s being used, integrates with a student information system, and can be used to automatically contact parents, said Fritz, who has helped develop such a system through Learn21.

But conditions during the massive and sudden deployment of devices this spring were far from ideal.

“COVID happened, schools shut down, and superintendents said, ‘We need to get devices in the hands of kids tomorrow,’” Fritz said. That left many schools little choice but to set up what he called “Chik-Fil-A drive-thrus” to pass out computers, without having the necessary systems and policies in place.

For its part, Greenville County Schools already had “procedures and processes” for recovering devices in place before coronavirus, Brinkman said. The district has also had its own asset management system in place since December 2019.

But that hasn’t eased the pressure the district is now feeling.

“We take our management of taxpayer-provided resources very seriously,” Brinkman said. “All we ask is that [families who have not yet returned devices] call … and we will work with them.”

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