PBC schools brace to spend millions on computers, internet, hand sanitizer, masks

The Palm Beach Post | By Sonja Isger | July 27, 2020

With remote learning a must come the first day of school in Palm Beach County, district officials are preparing to spend at least $7 million to get more students connected to their online lessons.

On Wednesday, the school board will be asked to approve up to $5 million to buy roughly 10,000 Chromebooks at a discount from Office Depot and sign two contracts to provide additional internet connections — a $1.2 million year-long agreement with T-Mobile and a $900,000 six-month contract with Comcast.

In the year to come, staff has proposed a budget that sets aside $8.8 million to further train teachers who in the waning weeks of last school year were told to abandon their classrooms and lead students online.

The proposed budget also anticipates $2.3 million for air filters, hand sanitizers, wipes, enhanced cleanings and a supply of face coverings from cloth masks to plastic face shields for staff and students, according to a presentation from Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke.

The decision to go fully remote in the beginning of the school year was unanimous, but several board members said their biggest concern is that so many children, thousands, can’t access — or at least reliably access — remote lessons.

Stories across the district abound, including the story of a Glades Central High School freshman who told The Palm Beach Post that he was forced to navigate algebra by tapping the unreliable wireless “hot spot” from his parents’ cell phone or hopping rides to his grandmother’s house. Despite his best efforts, the student who managed the class in the fall, wound up failing it in the spring.

And many appear not to have connected with teachers at all once the classroom doors shut.

The district attempted to inventory computer access of its 174,000 students via an electronic survey; the parents of 114,000 replied.

One in five said they didn’t have an iPad, laptop or other computer device for every child in their home. Five percent said they couldn’t afford the monthly fees to access the internet; 1% said they don’t have access to the internet in their neighborhood.

The district issued another parent survey Monday.

For years, giving every student access to their own device has been a priority, with cost being the top impediment. But in March as schools closed in the wake of the coronavirus contagion, it became a necessity.

The district handed out 60,000 Chromebooks last spring, which remained students over the summer. The district ordered 66,000 more from HP, which are expected to begin arriving Aug. 17 at a rate of 10,000 per week Burke said. School begins Aug. 31.

But demand is high and supplies running low, Burke said.

Office Depot had 4,250 computers in stock at a cost that varied by model from about $250 to $300. The district has committed to buy roughly 10,000 total if Office Depot can guarantee delivery in time to hand out to students in late August. The all-in cost for 10,000 Chromebooks is $3.2 million, but a $5 million contract gives the district room to buy other items if needed, Burke said.

The access has in some ways been trickier.

District officials say their preliminary data indicates nearly 15,000 students need help connecting to the internet. And one solution won’t fit all challenges.

The $1.2 million deal with T-Mobile would give the district 5,000 mobile hot spots that could give a student access from most places. They’d be assigned to students vetted using various tools, including a parent questionnaire, according to the back-up material for the School Board meeting Wednesday.

The best bang for the buck is coming from Comcast, which can provide low-income families with internet at just under half of the $20 a month going rate to the public. The company gives two months free to families the first time they qualify, further easing the bill that would go straight to the district.

The Comcast contract is $900,000 for six months, but the budget braces for the possibility the need will stretch up to a year, Burke said. The upside is that Comcast has a large presence in the county, he said. But it isn’t available in some neighborhoods.

Earlier this month, school board members said they worried about the families who hadn’t answered the district’s survey, a disproportionate number of whom were minorities.

“Whatever we do, we have to do a better job of reaching those families,” said Marcia Andrews, who represents the Glades communities, where poverty and internet challenges abound. Andrews suggested staff find creative solutions when traditional options fail, such as tapping resources at radio stations and town halls.

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