Moore County Schools realized a long-held goal during the COVID-19 pandemic when it provided a computer or tablet to every student in kindergarten through fifth grade to enable virtual learning.
The Board of Education voted on Monday to spend $1.3 million to preserve that “one-to-one” computing ratio for elementary school students over the next four years, but only after some members lobbied to reduce the number of digital devices available in kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms.
Administrators have presented equipping every student with a device as an inevitable consequence, only hastened by the pandemic, of state laws diverting funding from textbooks to digital content, and the shift of most state testing to an online format.
But before approving a plan to buy new computers for every elementary school classroom in the district, board members questioned whether “one-to-one” computing is a cost-effective measure, or even preferable to teaching without technology.
“There is in my mind an educational reason not to rely so much on digital devices,” said board member Robert Levy. ”I believe, and I’m seeing some writings to back me up, that one of the reasons why we’re having such problems with reading, reading comprehension, and being able to pay attention to long reading passages is that we’re relying so much on digital devices.”
In presenting the proposal, administrators said that teachers use technology to supplement traditional one-on-one and group teaching, but that having a device available for every student allows teachers to structure their lessons more efficiently. Vice-Chair Libby Carter said that in her observations of elementary school classrooms, computers are not used “an overwhelming amount.”
“I have seen teachers managing 18 or 19 children at once and it goes quickly and smoothly because every child has a device in hand,” Carter said. “I’ve also seen how long it takes for kindergarten or first- or second-grade students to return devices even to the charging carts.”
Moore County Schools’ middle and high school students have had individual Google Chromebook computers since 2013. The school board has a funding plan to replace those devices every four years.
Pandemic relief money allowed the district to move Chromebooks, one per student, into elementary schools. Some elementary schools had already bought student devices independently, either through fundraising or with federal funds for schools serving low-wealth populations, which are spent at principals’ discretion.
“Our school administrators in the past have scrambled and worked with parent organizations, have done whatever they could to provide the devices they could in the classrooms prior to the pandemic,” said Interim Superintendent Tim Locklair.
“Our school administrators and our classroom teachers saw great educational value in that, so that’s part of what we’re saying when they respond to the question, ‘What if we don’t have one-to-one?’ We’re going to work hard to try to provide that in our classrooms.”
Currently, kindergarten and first grade students each have an iPad tablet to use at school, while children in second grade and up use Chromebooks. The Chromebooks now being used in elementary schools were mostly hand-me-downs from middle or high schools for several years and will reach the end of their useful life in June.
This week, the school board agreed to replace 3,600 of the Chromebooks now used by students in second through fifth grade. Leasing the devices will cost the district $330,000 annually for four years. At the end of the lease, the Chromebooks will remain Moore County Schools’ property to either remain in use or be sold as surplus.
Board member David Hensley sought to cut the scale of the proposal in half, effectively providing one new Chromebook for every two students. I have suggested that teachers rotate students on and off of the devices during class, and that the savings of about $165,000 per year be diverted to other uses, like hiring teachers.
“We need to start thinking of all the money that we spend in terms of teachers to reduce classroom size, because the smaller we get our classrooms, the more effective our teachers will be,” said Hensley.
“Then we might find that if we get our classrooms small enough, that these disciplinary problems go away, we may find we don’t need as many social workers, we may find we don’t need as many psychiatrists because in smaller classrooms the teacher has more control.”
Moore County Schools budgets $70,000 for every teaching position. There are currently about 60 teaching vacancies listed on the district’s job board.
Pending approval by the county commissioners, the schools will pay for the computers using the district’s annual digital funding allotment from the county. The commissioners provide Moore County Schools with $750,000 per year, outside of its regular operational funding to the schools, specifically for digital learning.
“It’s not aimed at teachers, or teacher assistants, or cafeteria workers or anything else along those lines. It’s specifically digital devices and the support for them,” said Carter, a retired high school teacher. “So it’s not money that we can re-appropriate to put wherever we want to. Perhaps through negotiation with the commissioners that money might be reused, but at this point it is simply from the county digital learning fund.”
Board member Stacey Caldwell, a former first grade teacher, didn’t favor asking students to take online tests while students in their class are engaged in other activities
“It’s very hard to do testing on a computer with you teaching at the same time,” she said. “Especially someone who has ADHD or a learning disability, it’s very hard for them to focus on their test while teaching is going on.”
Levy and board member Philip Holmes supported Hensley’s motion, but it failed with Carter, Caldwell, Dennison and Chair Pam Thompson against. Ultimately administrators’ recommendation to replace all 3,600 Chromebooks passed 6-1, with Hensley against.
In other business on Monday, the board held off on considering an offer from the NC Department of Transportation to buy about 2.5 acres of road frontage on the West End Elementary campus for the widening of NC 211.
The state has offered the board $145,500 in compensation. John Birath, the district’s executive officer for operations, said that DOT will move to effectively force a sale if the board does not agree to negotiate by June 1.
West End’s main building is 137 feet from NC 211 as it sits today. Plans for expansion would move the edge of the road to just within 100 feet of the school.
Birath told the board during his work session last week that the road would move from 88 to 65 feet of the school, but corrected those figures Monday after reviewing a correctly scaled drawing of the plans.
But the board unanimously agreed to delay a decision, opting to wait until later in the month to potentially approve the property sale.
- Reappointed George Little to the Sandhills Community College Board of Trustees for another four-year term.
- Hired Fields Heating and Plumbing Company to replace the HVAC system in Carthage Elementary’s pre-kindergarten building. Fields was the only company to bid for the work. The $130,106 bid, plus $5,000 to remove the old system, is within the $198,000 projected cost.