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Students in early grades will get their own iPads—but not for a few weeks

Technology plays a big part in Harvard’s schools, with every student from fifth through 12th grade having either an iPad or a laptop issued by the school. With a School Committee vote this week, students in kindergarten through fourth grade will soon have an option to receive school-issued iPads, too. The committee’s unanimous vote, however, came only after considerable debate. And because suppliers are facing high demand, the new iPads will not arrive for a month or more.

At Monday’s meeting School Superintendent Linda Dwight urged the School Committee to extend the availability of iPads to the 313 Hildreth Elementary School students in grades K-4. The elementary school has 67 iPads for classroom use at those grades, so assigning an iPad to each student would mean leasing 246 more devices at a cost of about $40,000 per year for the next three years.

HES is signing out its current supply of classroom iPads to K-4 students who lack devices at home to access their remote classes. That leaves about 80% of K-4 students using whatever laptops, tablets, or even smartphones of various brands and ages that their families have at home. And it leaves parents doing a lot of tech support, Dwight pointed out, even as many of them are also trying to work from home.

Advocating for the new laptops, Dwight said the key issue is equity. “I don’t know how to fairly do it unless we purchase them [iPads] for every student,” she told the committee. She added it’s important to start the ordering process because there is a lead time of four or five weeks.

School Committee members pushed back hard against the additional spending, given the other unexpected expenses the pandemic has inflicted on the schools this year. Committee member Sharlene Cronin suggested the technical problems many families were having might just be “first-week pains” that could be solved if they updated their browsers or made similar adjustments. Member Suzie Allen asked if more technology training sessions for parents would help.

Above all, School Committee members wanted more information on how many families actually need to have a school-supplied iPad, given that some probably purchased devices over the summer in preparation for remote classes this fall. Some members proposed a survey asking parents about their available devices. But Dwight and HES Principal Josh Myler both warned that the least tech-savvy families are also the ones least able to answer a survey about what capabilities their devices already have.

Consensus emerged after several people suggested a survey that simply asked parents whether they can opt out of a school-supplied iPad because they already have a device that works well for their child’s needs. With that information, the schools could order only the number of iPads that are absolutely necessary—perhaps substantially fewer than 246.

“How will they [families] understand what the requirements are?” committee member Abby Besse asked.

“If you have an iPad that you bought in the last three years,” Myler replied, “it will work.” He added that a family might still need to buy a few inexpensive educational apps.

Besse asked another key question: “Where will the money come from?” Dwight said the schools have underspent the money budgeted from the Devens fund, so the money would come from there.

With the opt-out survey and a money source settled, the School Committee voted unanimously to authorize Dwight to go ahead with plans to purchase the additional iPads, asking only that she inform the committee how many are ordered. By Tuesday, Principal Myler had sent a letter to families asking them to take part in the opt-out survey and outlining the capacities their own devices should have if they plan to opt out. Families who do want to receive a school-issued device, he wrote, need not respond to the survey.

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