Princeton school district officials have approved spending $2.5 million to buy laptop computers and iPads for students, ensuring that each student has access to a computer for in-school and at-home use.
The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to spend $105,000 to buy 430 Chromebooks, but split its vote 6-4 to spend $2.4 million for 2,500 MacBook laptop computers and 570 iPads, at its July 1 meeting.
School board members Betsy Baglio, Beth Behrend, Jessica Deutsch, Susan Kanter, Brian McDonald and Michele Tuck-Ponder voted “yes” to buy MacBook laptops for sixth to 12th-grade students and iPads for students in grades preK-1.
School board members Debbie Bronfeld, Daniel Dart, Dafna Kendal and Peter Katz voted “no.” Katz is the Cranbury Schools school board representative to the Princeton school board. Cranbury sends its high school students to Princeton High School.
The laptops, Chromebooks and iPads are being purchased as part of the district’s one-to-one program. Each student will have a device for remote learning, or for a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, said Krista Galyon, the school district’s director of Technology and Innovation.
In the elementary schools, the devices will be kept on a cart in school when in-person classes are in session. Students at the John Witherspoon Middle School and Princeton High School will be assigned a dedicated laptop to take home with them so they will be prepared if the district reverts to remote learning, as it did when schools were closed down because of COVID-19.
The plan to buy the equipment grew out of Gov. Phil Murphy’s order to close the school buildings in March, which meant students had to learn from at home. Galyon, the district’s director of Technology and Innovation, said her department had been asked how students could be better supported with remote instruction, if it is needed during the 2020-21 school year.
Some families did not have access to computers when the school went to remote learning in March, Galyon said, so the district provided them with the equipment. Some students were using 2012 MacBooks and others were using 2015 MacBooks. Some students were using expired Chromebooks, she said.
The one-to-one initiative “levels the instructional playing field,” Galyon said.
The devices will be leased over a five-year period, and the district would buy them at the end of the term, Galyon said. Apple has a buy-back policy in which it purchases the devices. The money can be used to offset the costs of any new purchases, she said.
Dart asked whether there is a need to provide each student with a computer, because many families already have computers in their homes. Only students who need them should be given computers by the school district, he said, saying he was concerned about the costs.
Providing each student with a district-issued computer ensures they can all be online with the teacher at the same time, and that the teacher has more control over instruction, Galyon said. The teacher can direct students to a website, for example, or “see” what the student sees.
Students who use their own, personally owned computers can navigate past district filters. In the case of alleged cyber-bullying, it would be difficult for the district to pull the device for an investigation because parental permission would be required, she said.
Behrend said the district has to look ahead. Setting up a bring-your-own-device system, in which families provide their children with computers, is complicated – especially if the district is teaching in hybrid mode, she said.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Barry Galasso said it is likely there will be remote learning in the fall.
If COVID-19 continues to spread, “we may be in total remote learning for a while,” he said.
Parents will expect the district to provide quality instruction, he said.
“I think it is a matter of equity. I know Princeton Public Schools’ guiding principle is equity and this is one small step in providing students with a fair and equitable playing field,” Galasso said of the one-to-one computer initiative.
Tuck-Ponder said while she, too, shares concerns about costs, no one knows what the technology will look like in five years. She said she is not a technology person or an educator, but she does know children need to be equipped to learn.
“In this time of pandemic where we really have to make sure our kids are equipped to at least start the year off learning, I can’t argue Chromebook over MacBook,” Tuck-Ponder said.
She said she has to rely on the district’s Technology Department.
“This is the first time in my memory there will actually be a level playing field for all our students. It is expensive, but what is even more expensive is our failure to equitably educate our students,” Tuck-Ponder said.