Laptops and tablets coming to Memphis students starting in August

Delano Optional Elementary students learn how to use laptops that fold into tablets while playing a get-to-know-you Bingo game on the first day of school.
Delano Optional Elementary students learn how to use laptops that fold into tablets while playing a get-to-know-you Bingo game on the first day of school last year. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Update, July 29, 2020: Shelby County Schools is starting the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 31 with all students learning online. Laptop and tablet distribution is set to begin Aug. 3.

All Shelby County Schools students are scheduled to have a laptop or tablet by November, with distribution starting in August. 

The school board voted 8-1 at a special meeting Monday to approve $11 million toward a four-year lease for laptops and tablets from Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. The decision was in line with Superintendent Joris Ray’s $37 million plan to enable all students to learn online. The board will vote separately on other parts of the plan, including purchasing hotspots so students can get online if they don’t have internet access at home.

School closures because of the coronavirus underscored the lack of internet access for many Memphis families and Ray said he wanted to use this time to fill the gap and prepare for possible future closures. Ray also said there’s more to do. 

“A device is just a device. A device does not replace a teacher,” he said. Ray said the staggered distribution in three rounds between August and November accommodates the computer companies’ ability to provide the devices. 

District officials have said that instruction in the fall could be in-person, online, or a combination of both. More details are expected in early July after a community task force submits recommendations to Ray. School is scheduled to start Aug. 10. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that school buildings may need to close again if coronavirus infections substantially increase.

“If COVID continues to spike or maybe we have to shut down again… I want to have a unified way that we can have an orchestrated strategy for children,” Ray told board members. “And again, we’re not doing devices because of COVID. We’re doing devices because this is the model that we talked about in 2019.”

The plan comes more than a week after board members called for more details on how student learning could improve with the technology. They stressed that the technology access alone will not ensure students can learn from home. 

Superintendent Joris Ray presents during a virtual school board meeting to vote on leasing new laptops and tablets for students. (Shelby County Schools)

On Monday, the district said lessons covering the first semester’s material will be recorded for all grade levels. The lessons will then be loaded onto the laptops and tablets in case the district has to switch to all-online learning. The recordings will allow teachers to “focus their time on necessary individualized learning, small groups, and well-being checks of students,” the district’s presentation said. 

Antonio Burt, the chief academic officer, said the district plans to continue using Microsoft Teams to deliver online assignments and instruction. In recent weeks, Burt said the district has trained about half of its teachers on the platform, with more training planned. Longterm, a core group of about 250 teachers will record model lessons throughout the year and mentor other teachers in the first few years of transition. 

The district also plans to start online Microsoft Teams training for parents with computer access this month and continue throughout the year. Each school will also appoint student leaders to learn online etiquette and help teach other students how they can protect their privacy.

Board members questioned the ongoing training as staff and families adjust to the technology, but were largely satisfied with the added details compared with last week. 

“I know for a fact that our students are resilient and they will always step up to the plate when we show them that we care about them,” said board member Stephanie Love.

Board member Kevin Woods urged Ray to partner with community groups to help train parents and students on how to best use the devices. 

“This is going to stretch our staff extremely thin,” Woods said.

Board member Scott McCormick, the lone dissenter, said he supported the idea, but didn’t believe the plan was robust enough to implement.

“I feel if we don’t do this right we could do more harm than good,” McCormick said. “I’m not convinced we have the funding to implement this program and the funding to sustain this plan year over year… My fear is we are biting off more than we can chew.”

Most of the funding will come from federal coronavirus relief dollars. The Memphis City Council is considering giving Shelby County Schools $5 million of its coronavirus relief money toward the effort. But Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration is wary of the move because of federal guidelines and obligating the city to fund future initiatives. Council members have not yet scheduled a vote on the resolution, council Chairwoman Patrice Robinson said Monday. 

Each laptop would come with tracking software to locate the device and delete private data remotely if lost or stolen. The district plans to use its existing inventory of laptops as replacements if needed and included some replacements in the purchase. There are no device fees for families at this time, a district spokeswoman said. 

The plan does not include the district’s charter schools, but the district is working on a way for them to opt-in to the agreement and purchase devices for their 18,000 students.

Below is a summary of the district’s plan:

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