The future is now.

In a unanimous vote Thursday, June 25, board members of the Brainerd School District voted to purchase over 2,000 handheld computer devices for students to use while COVID-19 continues to circulate throughout the state. Not to exceed costs of $569,000, the two approved proposals were subject to an extended debate that highlighted the turbulent, quickly-developing situation that school districts are facing, as well as significant questions about the changing nature of education in the 21st Century.

The proposals are in response to directives by the Minnesota Department of Education that all school districts are required to plan for social-distance learning — as students in ISD 181 have been doing since March — or traditional in-person education, as well as a hybridized version of the two that limits which students are on campus on a given day, as well as how many. District officials painted the decision as not only a means to provide education to students working from home, but also to bridge broadband, technological and performance gaps in the community.

Expressing gratitude to district staffers who have worked tirelessly to prepare local schools for any of the three scenarios, Larson noted the discussion was spurred by current events, but it also reflected a societal shift toward the future.

“We’ve been working for years toward teaching with the technology our children will have. Unfortunately, in March, we had to do that in eight days,” Larson said. “This is something that we’ve been working toward for years and we had to do in a short time. It’s still good practice to provide technology. Kids are growing up with this technology. It’s a different world than when I grew up, or when my own kids grew up. Our principals are committed that we will not go back to education the way it was.”

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Sarah Porisch, Brainerd School District director of technology, gave a breakdown of both proposals.

The first proposal was to purchase 1,150 Acer Chromebooks, with the total price not to exceed $335,000, in order to bridge the gap for students in the event a hybrid or distance-learning model is implemented. Based on surveys and studies of teachers, families and students, Porisch said the conclusion was the school, with its current stockpile of Chromebooks, would not be able to equip the number of students, nor the rigors of home learning and technological limitations, for coming months.

Porisch noted the school also would be then capable of supplementing used Chromebooks if a student's Chromebook is damaged, instead of putting the district on the bill for another new device. Porisch noted the refresh cycle to purchase new devices each year for the district would stand at $500,000. Beefed up training and an increased emphasis on younger students getting acclimated to technology was also an of focus, she said.

In terms of the second proposal, Porisch pointed to kindergarten, first and second grade as particular points of weakness, which necessitates the purchase of 1,000 tablets over multiple years for these students, with the total price tag at $234,000.

“Distance learning has changed a lot of things. We found that one of the difficult things for our district through distance learning were the (kindergarten, first and second) grades, because they didn’t have any experience with these devices,” Porisch said. “This time around, we know they need to have that exposure, not just when they’re sent home, but with our teachers.”

In addition, both Larson and Porisch said the district is planning on a sustained, consistent rollout of Chromebooks every year, with fifth and ninth grade students receiving a new Chromebook as an educational aid. This plan, particularly the transition phase into a technology-oriented model — which factors as the most expensive phase — would be funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Based on discussions, Larson noted the school district is expected to receive $900,000 from CARES Act, with all but around $300,000 of that slated for these purchases.

Board member Tom Haglin expressed scepticism regarding whether or not young children should have access to a device.

“Does a five or six year old really need a device to learn what they need to learn?” Haglin said. “It seems like such a young age to have a device all to themselves.”

Porisch said the cost-benefit assessment is one that educators take seriously and they wouldn’t advocate the widespread usage of Chromebooks and other devices if they weren’t the main carriers of the district’s curriculum, if students aren't’ going to be using them on consistent basis, and if they wouldn’t prove beneficial in terms of, say, testing student progress.

Haglin said he supported implementing more technology, but said he’d like to see the district take a closer look at how effective these plans would be — particularly as a long-term solution.

“If we’re going to spend a half million dollars a year, what can we get back, what can we get in efficiencies? For every dollar we put in, I’d want to see us save $1.10 or something,” Haglin said. “You don’t have to answer that question now, but I’d like to see some hard numbers. … I’d like to see what the return is going to be.”

Board member Charles Black Lance said the implementation of more technology would be a boon for students of color and bridging the achievement gap between them and white students, as well as getting students on board with methods they’ll see often as they transition into higher primary grades, middle school and secondary education.

“If we’re able to tie this to our curriculum for our students, I see a lot of benefit,” Black Lance said.

In that vein, Haglin said he agreed, but expressed concern that distance learning would only further performance gaps for struggling students.

Board member Ruth Nelson expressed concerns that, by investing two thirds of that money into Chromebooks and similar technology, the district wouldn’t be able to address other needs such as bussing socially-distanced students and retrofitting classrooms. While those are concerns if the school has to follow a hybrid model, Larson said the focus was bridging technological gaps and access to the internet, which fall in line with guidelines for how the CARES Act is supposed to be utilized by schools.

“We are thinking right that we want to use the CARES Act for technology,” Larson said. “You could use it for summer programming and things like that, but we feel it’s best used for technology right now.”

Department directives

The Minnesota Department of Education asked school leaders Thursday, June 18, to create three contingency plans for three possible learning scenarios in the fall: in-person learning for all, hybrid learning with social distancing and distance learning. During the meeting, Larson noted the school district is expected to properly implement any one of the three models, as well as to switch to a different education model at any point in the coming school year should the spread of COVID-19 necessitate these measures.

The department is expected to provide a clearer picture of which direction the state will take by the end of July.

In-person learning for all students means schools would create as much space between students and teachers as is feasible during the day, but would not be mandated to strictly enforce 6 feet of social distancing during primary instructional time. Out-of-the classroom activities and extracurricular activities would be able to continue in accordance with the Minnesota Department of Health guidance for youth sports.

The hybrid scenario means learning would take place via a combination of in-person and online instruction. Schools would limit the overall number of people in school facilities and on buses to 50% maximum occupancy and would enforce 6 feet of social distancing at all times. Schools would need to include plans for contactless pickup and/or delivery of meals and school materials for days students and staff are not in the school building, as well as implementation of a school-age care program for critical workers.

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CORRECTION: This article was corrected Tues., June 30 when a portion of the following sentence (indicated in bold) which had erroneously been left attached during the editing process, was removed.

In that vein, Haglin said he agreed, but expressed concern that distance learning would only further performance gaps for struggling students, as the data

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GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.