Chatham's public schools distributing laptops to meet need during COVID-19

Posted 4/10/20

With students now learning from home, the Chatham County Schools’ Digital Learning and Technology Department has been forced to work quickly to ensure that regardless of their access to internet, …

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Chatham's public schools distributing laptops to meet need during COVID-19

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With students now learning from home, the Chatham County Schools’ Digital Learning and Technology Department has been forced to work quickly to ensure that regardless of their access to internet, all students have access to quality education materials.

The day before Gov. Roy Cooper ordered N.C. schools closed on March 14 because of COVID-19, CCS sent a survey to parents of students to assess students’ access to technology and the internet. The purpose, according to Keith Medlin, Chief Information & Technology Officer of Chatham County Schools, was to be “proactive” in case schools needed to close.

It turns out they were right on time.

Of the approximately 9,000 students in Chatham County, 6,618 students responded to the study, which was conducted online, by phone and on paper. Only about half of the county’s 2,600 high school students responded to the survey, something Medlin attributed to the fact that those students have a school-provided laptop. (Chatham County Schools has been providing laptops to high school students for use during the school year as part of the One-to-One program since 2008.)

In addition to supplying laptops to high school students, the county is already participating in the 1 Million Project — a nonprofit which provides hotspots to students — founded by Marcelo Claure, executive chairman of the board of Sprint Corporation. The county distributed internet hotspots from the 1 Million Project to high school seniors without reliable access earlier in the academic year through the program for the first time this year. Medlin noted that the current program is for students in high school, but the organization is working to expand that coverage to students in lower grades in the wake of COVID-19.

When Cooper released the order to close North Carolina schools, Medlin and a team of eight technicians who work for Chatham County Schools, with the support of school staff, began to assemble a massive distribution program. In one week, the team distributed just shy of 2,000 laptops already in the schools’ possession to students in elementary and middle school students. Each laptop needed to be tracked, and each parent needed to sign loaner agreements in which they agree to be financially responsible for it. Medlin created an iPhone app for the team to use for laptop distribution at each of the schools where parents were able to pickup the equipment. The technicians could take a photograph of the parent’s signature on the loaner agreement using their phone, connect that agreement to a distributed laptop and connect it all to each student’s account as the parent remained in their car.

“I’m really proud of the work done to make it happen,” Medlin said. “This allowed everyone to be safe and help facilitate social distancing for employees and for families.”

Even with the mass distribution of technology, Medlin said that there are still significant gaps in internet connectivity in the county, breaking down into “every variation” in Chatham County — those who can afford it, but don’t have access; those who have access, but can’t afford it; and those who don’t have access and can’t afford it.

According to the survey of students performed by Medlin’s team, 88.5 percent of students did have some form of reliable internet with 76 percent using DSL, cable or fiber. The survey purposely used the phrase “reliable internet” as access to internet doesn’t matter if the access doesn’t have the bandwidth to do a class online with video using a program such as Zoom or Skype.

“This is not inclusive of all Chatham County residents,” Medlin said. “The density of students in new neighborhoods are more likely to have access, but in other areas of the county, pockets remain with limited access.”

Medlin said the school system is “tailoring” education resources in a way that “encompassed the broad variance of internet connectivity in the community.” The Chatham County Schools has created a new website — https://sites.google.com/chatham.k12.nc.us/ccs-ahl/ — for at-home learning, which includes resources for parents, including a listing of school campuses that have internet access from the parking lot. That list includes the Bennett and Bonlee Schools, J.S. Waters in Goldston, Moncure School, Virginia Cross Elementary School in Siler City and Horton Middle in Pittsboro.

“Families can stay in the car, contact teachers and download content,” Medlin said.

In addition, school system staff created and distributed to parents a combined total of 340,000 pages of learning materials in “robust packets” that should cover several weeks of instruction that can all be obtained completely offline.

“We take it seriously and continue to look at it seriously,” Medlin said. “It’s a tailored approach. Hopefully, regardless of access, students will have access to high quality learning materials. And access, even if by phone, to a teacher.”

Medlin said the program “continues to evolve” as the team receives new information and adapts.

“This is an opportunity for the district to rise to the challenge and still work to achieve learning equity,” he said. “When we talk about healthy communities, it begins with good relationships with elected bodies, organizations where everyone wants to make things right and professionals that care. Extraordinary things can happen.”

Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.

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