Members of the Rome City School District’s Board of Education received a comprehensive take on the district’s technology and a past-present-future glimpse at its impact on how Rome’s students are and will be learning.
Patrick Sullivan, the district’s director of Information Technology, summed up the status of 1-to-1 learning, synonymous with remote learning by laptop, and other issues for the board at its meeting on Thursday. All of the approximately 5,600 Rome district K-12 students have been issued Chromebooks, Sullivan said.
While the transitioning to laptop learning was on the pre-pandemic radar for Rome, it wasn’t quite yet in the crosshairs when the pandemic and an abrupt bolt into remote learning pushed the issue of laptops to all of Rome’s K-12 students in the Spring of 2020.
Baptized by fire, the students, faculty and families “learned on the job” how teach and learn – and support both – on this new virtual platform, Sullivan said.
While the pandemic is expected to wane over time, its lessons will remain, officials said, adding that Chromebooks will be used moving forward whether instruction is remote or in-person. These devices, empowered by broadband internet access, allow students new and more thorough access to their teachers, classes, curriculum, assignments and assessments, officials said, and can eliminate “paper” almost entirely.
About a year ago, the Rome City School District partnered with M.A. Polce Consulting, Inc, a Rome-based cyber-security company, to improve upon security measures already in place, including use of Arctic Wolf technology.
“Arctic Wolf, in layman’s terms, just watches over everything that comes into our network,” said Sullivan. Security measures include limits to the sites that students are able to access on the internet, gps tracking on the individual devices, and flagging suspect email and uploads where malware and ransomware can be detected and prevented from infecting the network.
The sudden shift to virtual learning revealed inequity in access to broadband internet service, cable service and cellular telephones and tablets. Obstacles ranging from prohibitive costs to locations – especially rural – where service is unreliable or – sometimes – simply not yet available. As a result, Sullivan shared that the district issued almost 200 “hot spot” devices that would allow students to log onto the internet via a cellular phone device or cable-provided wifi service.
Sullivan called hot spots, “pretty amazing.” But they are not quite amazing enough to close the gap of access to the internet and – thus – to their curriculums for some students.
“In some places, there are just no nearby cell towers,” said Sullivan. “If there are no cell towers or signals, hot spots will still not do much to help.”
One short-term solution being explored by Rome is equipping school buses with internet access. While current complaints abound about the length of Rome school bus rides, the time spend on school buses with internet access could be spent by students with limited access at home to work on assignments requiring an internet connection, reviewing their Google classrooms and other similar tasks.
Damage, loss and replacement
A challenge inherent in putting a Chromebook in the hands of every K-12 student in Rome is the inevitability of lost or damaged devices and the need to replace devices that have outlived their lifecycles. “The replacement cycle on a Chromebook is four to six years,” said Sullivan. “And they last.”
“If we’re looking at issuing a Chromebook to each student when starting Kindergarten,” said Sullivan, “we should be looking at three device replacement cycles; one replacement in fifth-grade and another between grades 9 and 11.”
Sullivan and his staff of 12, who work to manage the district’s devices, have flagged damage and loss of the Chromebooks emerging as their biggest challenge.
“What we are finding – what every district is finding,” said Sullivan, “are hiccups in terms of our time and just being overwhelmed with damage to the Chromebooks and trying to track down missing devices.”
“We had a total of 1079 repairs last year,” reported Sullivan. “This year, since September 1, we’ve already needed to repair 448 devices.” Sullivan noted that, while the Chromebooks are simple to us, they are complex devices to repair. He called the uptick in damage to them a “daunting task” for his department.
Tanya Davis, vice president of the board, suggested the district consider a proactive investment, such as issuing the Chromebooks to students together with a padded sleeve – something that could lower the damages.
Sullivan also noted that, not surprisingly with the return to in-school learning, many students simply forget to bring the Chromebook to school – where teachers now incorporate it into in-class lessons and where students use it to monitor their schedule and assignments, as well as to use free periods to complete homework.
Board member Anna Megerell noted that it might be helpful if elementary-aged students were allowed to leave their Chromebooks at school, unless there was a specific need to bring them home.
“My only fear with that is how quickly things change with us going remote.” warned Sullivan, referring to the recent and sudden announcement of a temporary return to remote learning in Rome. “Some teachers have allowed students to leave devices at school, then the next day, we shut down and teachers have to find a way to get the Chromebooks to those students.
Sullivan shared that there is a help desk system where teachers can request a “loaner” device for a student who has forgotten their Chromebook but needs one to engage in that day’s lessons.
“Requests for loaners have also increased this year,” said Sullivan. “We are closing in on almost 500 requests.”
Sullivan also updated the Board on the math around missing Chromebooks. He believes the current number, since the devices were issued to students in the spring of 2020, is as much as 120 missing devices.
“We do have the ability to geo-locate the missing devices and we can also remotely disable them so that they can’t really be used,” said Sullivan in the way of advising the Board of measures in place to prevent the loss of missing Chromebooks, “but that doesn’t get it returned – unless we physically go and recover it.”
“With our recent graduating class,” queried Davis, “how did we do getting them back?”
While Sullivan didn’t have a number specific to that cohort, Davis went on to suggest proactive measures that would motivate students who had not left the district to return the Chromebooks, such emailing seniors to remind them of the need to return the devices and warn of consequences that could include the release of transcripts. Davis also suggested requiring the return of the Chromebook when seniors pick up their caps and gowns.
While sometimes challenging to enforce, parents and guardians do agree to be responsible for loss or damage when the Chromebooks are issued to their children. But paying for repairs or replacements can be a daunting expense for many Rome families.
“One thing (Superintendent) Peter Blake and I have worked on is offering device insurance to parents,” said Sullivan. “Canastota and Little Falls districts already do this.”
Sullivan said the cost through the provider for insurance, which covers loss, breakage, water damage and other issues – is $32 per year.
Davis liked the idea of offering the insurance, but wanted to explore a means of providing it to families for whom the cost could be prohibitive, especially those with multiple children in the district.
Sullivan shared that the “Smart Schools” initiative passed in 2014 has helped to update network infrastructures and prepare for a 1-to-1 virtual learning environment. The Rome district worked to assess its network, making sure every classroom had a wireless access point and network switch. Replacements, installations and upgrades were made to ensure compliance, consuming $1.1 million in Smart Schools funding.
Strough Middle School was Rome’s “canary in the coalmine,” as it was the first district building to receive interactive screens to replace projectors. Sullivan reported that the response from the 75 teachers piloting the use of the large touchscreen monitors at Strough was “ear-to-ear smiles.”
Sullivan advised that the transition to Chromebooks was one phase of the 1-to-1 journey, and the equipping of every Rome classroom with the interactive, 75-inch touchscreen monitors was the next phase. He shared that the request has been submitted, but the Smart Schools process can take 12 to 14 months for approval, so he expects to have the touchscreens in all classrooms by shortly after the holiday break next school year.
The district has committed to providing teachers with touchscreen laptops. The devices allow the teacher to manipulate their laptop screen from anywhere in the classroom to note with a stylus or load to student screens or the central touchscreen monitor. It eliminates wires and the need for the teacher to be limited to the front of the classroom – they will be completely mobile.
“It is giving teachers the option to make the classroom what they want,” said Sullivan.
Davis queried Sullivan about an emerging wish on the list of teachers being dual monitors.
“The teachers want one monitor to see their class and another to see what they’re presenting,” said Davis.
Sullivan advised that the laptop format does not lend well to feeding into additional monitors. The only way to fulfill that request would be dual desktop monitors and, with technology advancing at rapid pace, his concern was having 800 outdated monitors in 400 classrooms “collecting dust.”
He shared that document cameras can act as a second camera on the laptops, so teachers can show their faces as well as a lesson element, such as a ruler to measure something.
More technology on deck includes CAMI, which can turn a paper worksheet into a digital, write-able document, SCREEN PACIFY, which can convert a powerpoint slide show into a recorded video, and CLASS LINK, which gathers all of the applications downloaded to a given device onto a dashboard that can be accessed with one username and password.
“None of this would be possible if our network wasn’t strong,” said Sullivan. “We currently have a 1-gigabit connection, but we’re working to upgrade to 10, which will support the number of Chromebooks and video-based instruction ... which is here to stay.”