Billions of dollars in unanticipated funding for new laptops, tablets, 3D printers, and hotspots sounds like a district technology leader’s lucky day, not a slow moving train wreck.
But that’s what some educators and experts see when they consider the current picture in many schools. Driven by an urgent need to make it possible for millions of students to learn virtually and fueled by tens of billions in federal relief cash, districts tripled or quadrupled their fleet of devices over the course of just one school year.
Many of those districts have embraced 1-to-1 computing initiatives and the changes to instruction, classroom management, and professional development that come with them. But in a few short years, the devices bought with federal emergency funds are going to be outdated or even stop working altogether, experts warn. Districts have different deadlines for spending various pots of federal funding, but the last of it must be allocated by September of 2024.
Many districts are not planning for that reality.
“I’m hearing from other CTOs across the nation that there are leadership groups and school boards that feel like ‘You’re good, you don’t need anything else,’’’ said Kelly May-Vollmar, the assistant superintendent of educational technology services for the Desert Sands school district in southern California. “It’s all fine for today, but a few years from now, about the same time the money runs out, we’re going to have a big problem on our hands.”
The complication goes beyond just the cost of laptops and tablets, added May-Vollmar, whose own district went 1-to-1 several years ago after carefully crafting a sustainability plan.
“You’re teaching teachers how to use [devices],” she said. “You’re teaching kids how to use them. You’re spending a lot of time and money. The investment goes far beyond the cost of the device.”
I'm hearing from other CTOs across the nation that there are leadership groups and school boards that feel like ‘You’re good, you don't need anything else.' It's all fine for today, but a few years from now, about the same time the money runs out, we're going to have a big problem on our hands
The time to start planning is now
Districts don’t usually go on a tech buying binge. Instead, school systems with a lot of hardware to manage typically have a set replacement cycle. For instance, they might swap out a quarter of their old laptops and tablets each year and replace with them new ones. That way, no student is typically given a device that is more than four or five years old, and the district can space out its spending over a longer period.
But the federal relief money—and the immediate need to help kids secure devices and internet capability in order to learn virtually—meant many districts purchased a slew of laptops, tablets, hotspots, even 3D-printers and interactive screens, all at once.
“They had to do the quick spend, and it was a lot of money,” said Diane Doersch, the technical project director at Digital Promise, a nonprofit that works to improve learning through more-effective use of technology. “But now, they’re gonna have to start planning: ‘How am I going to divide this fleet up intelligently so that I don’t have these high-spending years to replace the whole fleet at once?’”
If districts don’t think ahead, four or five years from now they may be “stuck with a whole bunch of devices that don’t work and no money for replacements,” said Doersch, who previously worked as a chief technology and information officer in Wisconsin.
That’s particularly problematic because districts are reimagining professional development and curriculum to make the most of the new technology. Three or four years from now, teachers will likely have grown used to working with laptops and other devices, particularly in districts that went 1-to-1. It would be a big U-turn to go back to Chromebook carts and computer labs, Doersch said.
What’s more, for some lower-income families, the school-issued laptop or tablet is the sole device for an entire household.
“I have heard of families where that is the only computer that the whole family has, and mom and dad have been able to apply for jobs on it and, you know, do these other things that the family needs a computer for,” Doersch said. While there are federal programs to help families obtain devices, they can be hard to navigate, she added.
The first step is to take a hard look at what devices you have and how old they are
One of the first steps many districts must take in coming up with a sustainability plan: Figuring out what hardware they already have, how old those devices are, what kind of shape they’re in, and where they are, physically.
Doersch suggests districts spend this coming summer analyzing their inventory, asking questions like: Which devices came back from students’ homes? What didn’t come back? What’s damaged, but fixable? What needs replacing?
Districts also need to consider expenditures beyond just replacing and repairing many more devices. For instance, if a district bought iPads, the tablets themselves may last up to six years. But the power cords will likely need to be replaced long before that. Interactive whiteboards come with remote controls that run on batteries that will wear out. And on and on.
“There are always hidden costs and tentacles,” Doersch said.
But more devices can open additional savings elsewhere, she added. For instance, if a district has gone 1-to-1, can it purchase fewer textbooks? Save on printing costs? Digitize student documents?
Districts also have the option to seek outside funding. Wichita Public Schools in Kansas is working with Verizon Innovative Learning to ensure that kids at low-income schools can continue to have access to a device and internet services at home—initiatives that were initially funded by federal programs that are likely to be phased out. The district has also crafted a five-year sustainability plan for the 50,000 devices it purchased with the help of federal relief funding.
Wichita also brought on new software for teaching and learning, including Nearpod, which allows teachers to create digital presentations and share them with student devices, and BrainPOP, which offers online learning games.
When the federal money runs out, the district may have to take a close look at its software programs and phase out those that aren’t getting much use or are duplicative, said Rob Dickson, the district’s chief information officer.
The district may have to be “OK with not doing some things, maybe those are old pieces of software, or old pieces of curriculum that you’re not using that you just need to say, ‘No, I’m not going to renew that, because I’m not seeing the usage’,” he said.
It may ultimately be tough for many districts to completely blunt the impact of the federal money running dry, even if they are thoughtful about sustainability, Doersch said.
“It is going to be a big challenge, no matter what, because money that was there is no longer going to be there,” she added.
Although school districts invested a lot of the federal money in new devices, most opted not to use the one-time cash to hire additional staff to help with repair, administration, and technical support. Salaries and benefits can be a hefty, ongoing expense, Doersch said.
That choice left some district IT departments overwhelmed and understaffed, dealing with far more devices but the same number of personnel.
Wichita Public Schools’ creative solution to the staffing problem: “We started hiring students to do our tech work,” Dickson said.
The district teamed up with Wichita State University and WSU Tech, another local postsecondary institution, to help train the students. The kids get high school credit and dual enrollment credit, plus $15 an hour, in exchange for their work. If the students perform well, Dickson anticipates hiring some of them after they graduate.
Paint the picture of what this looks like in four years if there is not proper planning
The sustainability push may require district tech leaders to wear yet another hat: Public relations professional. They will need to convince school boards to finance new technology to replace pandemic-purchased devices once they become outdated.
Those conversations should start now, May-Vollmar said. When her district launched a 1-to-1 initiative in 2018, prior to the pandemic, she had frank discussions about sustainability with the local board of education, ultimately persuading members to commit to replacing one-sixth of the district’s devices every year, as a regular part of the budget.
District tech leaders may have to go on a charm offensive, she said, without sugar-coating the fallout of inaction.
“You have to paint the picture of what does this look like four or five years from now, if we don’t have a sustainability plan, and what’s the impact to our students?” she said. “You got to be able to tell that story and you have to be able to tell the story now, before you’re in a position that it’s an immediate need, because technology is not cheap.”
To make her case in Desert Sands—a district with students from a wide variety of socioeconomic circumstances—May-Vollmar collected data on how many students had quality internet access and a device at home. She worked methodically, promoting her plan first to the school board, then school leaders, teachers, parents, and students.
Equity was at the center of her pitch. She told the school community that when students go home, “if they have a device and internet connectivity, the world of learning is open to them. [If they] don’t have that, they’re limited to what’s in their textbook.”
To be sure, crafting a long-term sustainability plan and selling it to district leaders is a big-time commitment for IT departments that are already stretched thin.
But that’s become the nature of the job for district tech directors these days.
“Starting with the pandemic, tech leaders had to do more than manage boxes and wires,” Doersch said. “They were the visionaries. They had to build strategy. Everything seemed to depend on the technology. And so their leadership game was upped, most definitely.”