Distance learning over the final nine weeks of classes made one thing clear to Pinellas County school district officials.
“Students will achieve if given the resources,” associate superintendent Kevin Hendrick told the School Board.
Even with the district handing out 26,000 devices during that time, though, not everyone had equal opportunities to take advantage of the lessons available. Some of the technology was not as up to date, some was not powerful enough.
The board took a giant step toward resolving that situation on Tuesday. It unanimously agreed to spend $21 million on 42,000 new Dell laptop/tablet machines, allowing every student in fourth through ninth grade to have one for classroom and home use.
The money will come largely from the district’s share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding. In future years, the district has committed $6 million per year in its technology “refresh” plan so it can expand its 1-to-1 computer program to all grade levels.
“We’re not going to have some but all students have access to a laptop computer of a certain quality,” superintendent Mike Grego said. “This plan is one of the most exciting things we’ve done as a district.”
Called PCS Connects, it stems from the knowledge that the district — like many across the state and nation — faced what became known as a digital divide that made it difficult for many students to participate in learning outside of the classroom.
Along with adopting a new computerized learning management system called Canvas, which the board also approved Tuesday, the district aims to have its materials and curriculum available to all students, whether in school or at home.
In the worst of times, as just experienced, distance learning would be able to occur more easily, Grego said. In more usual circumstances, the model would provide several benefits as well, he suggested.
Parents will be able to help their children at home with the availability of the full curriculum, which will be online for the first time. Struggling students will have more opportunities to practice at home, and those seeking enrichment activities also will have easier access.
“We want to leverage this moment in time,” Hendrick said. “We never want to have a time again where we have students who do not have access to technology and the internet in their homes.”
Board members expressed strong support for this approach, which they expect to be added as a key new point of their strategic plan.
“This is absolutely wonderful,” said board member Eileen Long, a retired teacher. “We are just moving ahead at light speed with this. I am very pleased.”
In other business Tuesday, the board:
• Reviewed its budget plans for 2020-21. Officials said if the state doesn’t change its budget too much, the district should be able to increase its minimum teacher pay to $47,500, with the local property tax supplement rising by nearly $700 per teacher.
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• Heard a proposal to add a “health and wellness through the arts” magnet to Lakewood Elementary School, and a Center for the Gifted at John Hopkins Middle School. John Hopkins would end its IB Candidate Programme as part of the change. Board member Rene Flowers told staff to make sure that any recommendation ensures that neighborhood children have access to the programs as well as children from outside.
• Learned that the planned July high school graduation ceremonies at the Spectrum Field in Clearwater are still scheduled, despite Major League Baseball’s decision to cancel summertime activities at its facilities.
• Received back-to-school survey data from 43,220 respondents, two-thirds of whom were parents. Superintendent Grego said just 10 percent indicated they were very uncomfortable returning students to schools. However, many said they wanted more details about the return plan before committing. Grego expects to present a reopening model to the board on July 14 after conducting more interviews and focus groups.
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