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Pressure is hitting districts as they face a Sept. 30 deadline to commit dollars from the second of three covid relief spending packages.

As COVID relief spending deadlines loom, one district moves ahead with an uncommon tech plan

Pressure is hitting districts as they face a Sept. 30 deadline to commit dollars from the second of three stimulus packages--and a year later, another deadline to spend the third, largest, and final installment

At a Dolton-Riverdale school board meeting in the spring, district leaders and two technology vendors pitched a $3.3 million tech overhaul. 

They told the board in the high-poverty district in Chicago’s south suburbs that the project would “future-proof the classroom” and “catapult Dolton into the next generation of learning technology.”

A couple of members balked. They said they felt rushed to approve the deal and questioned why it had not been put out for a bid. But deputy superintendent Sonya Whitaker urged them to back the project that March evening, insisting that the district was staring down a deadline to spend a portion of its federal COVID relief money.

Out on Capitol Hill, she warned, the feds are “itching to take this money away from us.” 

The board approved the deal 4-2. As a result, the district’s 1,900 elementary students will return later this summer to classrooms outfitted with multiple touch screens, motion-tracking cameras, and microphones — part of an uncommon plan to embrace hybrid learning.

Officials say the technology will boost attendance by allowing students who are sick or traveling to virtually join classmates, and will help with teacher shortages by letting an educator or a substitute teach two or more classrooms at a time. 

The pressure felt by the Dolton board is hitting districts across the state as they face a Sept. 30 deadline to commit dollars from the second of three stimulus packages — and a year later, another deadline to spend the third, largest, and final installment of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the unprecedented federal infusion of money to help schools recover from COVID. 

In Illinois, districts have spent about 82 percent of the second relief package and almost 40 percent of the third one, said the Illinois State Board of Education.

With the clock ticking here and across the country, technology companies and other vendors are pushing products and services they claim can help speed up student recovery — and urging districts to invest in them now.

Data the state maintains on recovery spending does not explicitly break out technology, with more than half of expenditures so far categorized under the broad umbrella of “instruction.” But other districts have also spent heavily on devices, tech education products and more, including Chicago, where tech companies have loomed large in its outside vendor spending.

At least for now, Dolton-Riverdale Superintendent Kevin Nohelty said, the district will not move forward with a vision he had shared with Chalkbeat last year in which all students would learn remotely for a part of each week — one that some parents and experts have said they find concerning. Instead, the district will “start small,” allowing teachers to get the hang of the technology and letting students log in virtually only as needed. 

In a district that, like many others, has struggled with absenteeism post-pandemic, the possibility of harnessing technology to address the issue sounds enticing. But simultaneously teaching students who are in the classroom and virtually is challenging, especially in the elementary grades Dolton serves.    

Dolton officials wanted to prepare for another upheaval

Denise Sanders stopped by Riverdale’s Washington Elementary this week — and was surprised to see large interactive boards getting set up in all classrooms. Sanders’ younger granddaughter attends the school, where Sanders also helps out classroom teachers as part of a statewide parent mentor program.

“What’s this all about?” she asked a staffer in a hallway. 

“We’re doing hybrid learning,” the staffer responded.

Dolton-Riverdale, whose student population is overwhelmingly Black and low-income, had been hit hard by the pandemic, with a steep jump in absenteeism and dip in state test results. Citing COVID fears and an online program officials felt worked well, the district had made the decision to remain fully virtual during the entire 2020-21 year, putting it in the minority of districts nationally. 

Sanders says like other children, her granddaughters struggled to stay engaged during that virtual stretch. She recalls spending a good part of that 2020-21 year by her middle schooler’s side, making sure she remained focused on lessons and schoolwork on her laptop. She taught her younger granddaughter her ABCs and numbers, skeptical that the girl would get much out of virtual pre-kindergarten.

“It was really hard,” Sanders said. “A lot of kids are still behind.”

Nohelty, the superintendent, argues the pandemic was so disruptive because districts were unprepared for the abrupt shift to remote learning. And he believes the technology used for virtual instruction holds possibilities post-COVID. 

So during the 2021-22 school year, as the district was returning to normalcy, Nohelty started eyeing a plan to embrace hybrid learning in the long run. 

At one point, Nohelty envisioned dedicating the bulk of the district’s roughly $21 million in federal COVID relief to a hybrid technology plan, though he said more recently that he is earmarking about $5 million for it in the short term.

He said he wanted to ensure the district was ready for the next major upheaval. He also wanted to reimagine learning, with students perhaps attending in person three days and virtually two days each week. 

That’s where Velocita Technology and ViewSonic came in.

Last year, the district hosted focus groups with representatives of Velocita, Dolton’s Joliet-based technology consultant, and ViewSonic, the prominent maker of touchscreens and other technology. They set out to show how ViewSonic’s interactive screens and its “COVID child” — a software platform that allows virtual students to interact with educators in the classroom, collaborate on assignments with in-person peers, and more — could help teachers deliver a new and improved version of hybrid learning.

District emails show Velocita reps nudging Dolton officials to move ahead briskly with the plan as leaders pushed back their presentation to the school board several times.

At the board meeting in March, Velocita and ViewSonic reps unveiled the “Flexible Classroom Learning & Alerting Solution,” which they said they had developed with district officials. The $3.3 million would cover touchscreens, cameras, microphones and speakers, as well as laptops and training for teachers. But the district would only get that price if it made the purchase by the end of the year’s first quarter.

Amid heightened concerns about school shootings, the reps also noted the technology would give administrators the ability to communicate with classrooms in a non-disruptive way. They could send all teachers a silent message about a lockdown or other campus emergency. 

Member Shalonda Randle said that between the technology project and another $2.4 million proposal for COVID relief funded security upgrades, the district was throwing a lot of information and big price tags at the board — and asking for approval on the spot. 

Nohelty countered that the district had vetted the project and invited board members to do some research to learn how “cutting edge” it was. Whitaker implored the board to trust district leaders, saying she didn’t want to be forced to give back the federal money.

Following the board’s approval, Larry Lawrence, its president, did not respond to requests for comment. Randle said it is board policy to refer all media inquiries to Nohelty.

Frank Brandolino, the president of Velocita, did not respond to a request for comment. 

In a statement, ViewSonic said the company had engaged teachers and administrators, provided them with clear information through the focus groups, incorporating their feedback into the plan. The project is in the final phase of installation this summer, and staff training, which started in the spring, will continue this fall. 

Superintendent says students will use new technology daily

Sanders, the Washington grandmother, says the school’s educators have worked hard to help students bounce back from COVID’s academic and mental health fallout. They’ve tried to build more one-on-one and small group help for struggling students into classes, she said.

She hopes the new technology will allow students who cannot attend for any reason to keep up with schoolwork. Giving students who, say, get diagnosed with COVID a chance to join classmates virtually until they are cleared to return to school sounds like a good thing. 

But she wonders how many families will take advantage: Shouldn’t sick kids just stay in bed and rest until they feel better? And she believes the district should be focused on ensuring as many students as possible are in the classroom. 

“I think in-person beats virtual any day,” she said.

Gerald Ardito, an education technology expert at Manhattanville College in New York and a former middle school teacher, said the district could be on to an out-of-the-box solution to the student attendance challenges that are still plaguing many districts. 

But because this is a novel approach, it’s hard to say whether students who are missing school would actually log on remotely using the new technology.

The district needs to do much more beyond providing that technology, Ardito said. It needs a clear protocol for how and when students join their classrooms virtually and a plan to help them if they run into issues logging in — a significant undertaking to avoid a “chaotic” rollout.

And it needs to provide extensive professional development on effective hybrid and remote teaching beyond merely showing teachers how to use the new screens and software. Teaching online or in a hybrid format is “a profoundly different experience” from teaching in person, he noted.

That’s a heavy lift — and Ardito questions whether having a smaller group of hybrid teachers on each campus would have been more practical than outfitting each classroom and training each teacher.

“We’ve all seen ed tech providers with all the buzzwords about ‘21st century learning’ and ‘global learning communities’,” he said. But, he added, “Technology is just a tool. It doesn’t do anything in and of itself. It’s about how it’s used by teachers, students and parents.” 

Darlene McMillian, the teachers union president in Dolton, declined an interview but said in a statement that teachers are excited to learn more about the district’s technology plan.

“While we were provided quite a bit of information during our professional development training in the spring,” she said, “we are looking forward to additional guidance this fall when we actually put the new equipment into practice with our students.”

Based on data reported to the state, Dolton has committed all of its second COVID relief allocation and spent almost a fifth of it as of July, the Illinois State Board of Education said. Though the district has until Sept. 30 to obligate the funding, it has until the end of January to actually spend the money.

In its most recent COVID relief spending plan to the state, Dolton said it would also use the money for expanded after-school programs, some professional development and personal protective equipment, and new Chromebooks for students. 

The state board said that while its officials have reached out to some districts about the slow pace of spending, state officials are confident that all districts are on track to make use of their dollars by the upcoming deadlines. The state credits the federal money with graduation rate improvement, some headway in addressing teacher shortages, and growth on state tests, though proficiency levels remained well below pre-pandemic results last year.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Nohelty said training for staff started this past spring and will continue for years.

He said the shift to permanent hybrid learning he envisioned earlier would be “a little premature” this coming school year; the district would have to secure permission from the state.

But he expects students across the district will be using the new technology daily, logging on from home when they can’t make it to school or from their classrooms when their teacher is absent and a colleague takes on their class from a nearby room. 

Nohelty also said he has been hearing from other Illinois superintendents who are potentially interested in replicating what Dolton is doing. 

“This technology further enhances and supports the way we deliver our curriculum now,” he said. “We’re unstoppable.”

At Washington Elementary, Sanders says she is eager to find out more about the plan from her school’s principal and teachers. She is giving it the benefit of the doubt — though she feels strongly that parents across the district would oppose any move to require some virtual or hybrid learning.

“It’s bad enough that we put kids through that and messed them up,” she said, adding, “I want to see how this is going to play out.” 

What’s keeping districts from spending COVID relief funding?
Federal COVID relief funding will dry up soon. Are districts ready?

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