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16,000 computers haven’t arrived yet, but Wichita’s school chief says they’ll get by

By Dion Lefler, the Wichita Eagle, original article link

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Slowed down by worldwide supply chain problems due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wichita school district has only received about 8,000 of the 24,000 computers and tablets it’s ordered to equip all students with the tools needed for online learning, the district’s superintendent said Friday.

But Superintendent Alicia Thompson said USD 259 will have enough equipment on hand for all students that need it when school starts Sept. 8.

“If parents need a device on My School Remote, or the full remote, any parent that is needing that for their student, we do have technology available or we will have technology available,” Thompson said.

Delivery of new machines has been sporadic, she said.

“Those units have been coming in in chunks and sometimes you don’t know how many you’re going to get when they get here,” Thompson said. “What we do know is we’re going to get another batch of those. Supposedly our timeline now is 45 days from last Monday. Then we have another batch we will get in sometime in October.”

On Thursday night, the school board decided to start the school year with students in middle school and high school learning only remotely and not attending in-person classes.

Elementary schools will open for in-person instruction, but parents are being given the option to enroll their children in My School Remote, a program that will allow students and teachers to hold classes as usual, but through interactive teleconferencing instead of face-to-face interaction in the classroom.

A second online option, the less-structured and self-paced Education Imagine Academy, is full and not accepting students at present.

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In June, the school board authorized up to $24 million for a plan to equip all students with an age-appropriate device — mostly Apple iPads and Microsoft Surface laptops — along with internet service at home for those who don’t have it.

The effort has been handicapped by equipment availability.

Tariff barriers and production slowdowns in China — origin point of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — have affected delivery of devices that USD-259 ordered.

“Many of our devices, even though they’re an American company, they’re manufactured in China,” said board member Ernestine Krehbiel. “By the time we get the tangle with trade with China in there and the fact that — I don’t know how many school districts there are in the United States and all of them are probably ordering the same (products).

“It like the PPE (personal protective equipment) and all the other stuff. If everybody is ordering something at the same time, then you’re all competing time-wise with all the other districts.”

Krehbiel said she’s confident the district can start the year with enough equipment, but that could change if the virus flares up again and all the schools have to be shut down like they were in March. The default in that case is that all students who’d opted for in-person school would be taught through My School Remote.

The fact that school begins on the day after a holiday weekend adds to the worry, because new cases spiked after Memorial Day and Fourth of July holiday parties.

“My concern is quite frankly what happens after Labor Day if everybody in Wichita and Sedgwick County decides they’re not going to obey the mask rule and we suddenly have an upswing (in coronavirus cases)?” Krehbiel said.

“We also do need to have time to train the children, elementary kids particularly. The older kids, they can catch on pretty fast, but we need to train the elementary kids so we need to have devices for them.”

Thompson said she’s confident the district’s information technology department can handle that training.

“We have a dynamic team” of district and on-site tech support employees, she said. “We have the manpower that we’ll be able to get that done for our families.”

Until the supply and demand problem clears up, the district is prioritizing its distribution of devices, with children learning at home who don’t have computers or internet access, getting first call on the machines that are in hand, Thompson said.

If the district falls short on new devices by the time school starts, it has equipment that could be repurposed for home instruction and then swapped out later, according to an e-mail written by Rob Dickson, the district’s chief information officer.

“In order to assure that every student has a device and internet connectivity, we will use both new devices received already as well as existing devices to first target students in My School Remote who don’t already have devices,” Dickson’s e-mail said. “As new devices come in, we will shift equipment and make technology available to every student as originally planned.”

The newer machines come equipped to access wireless internet service directly and the district has stand-alone hotspots that can be used with older machines, Thompson said.

The district has about 50,000 students. Enrollments are not finished for the upcoming school year.

So far, Thompson said, about six out of 10 families are opting for regular school and four of 10 are selecting the My School Remote option.

Now that the board has made its decision on which schools to open on-site, it’s up to parents who’ve been on the fence to decide whether their children will come back to the schoolhouse or continue with online learning, Thompson said.

“We have thousands of parents still waiting to make a determination whether or not they’re going to do on-site or My School Remote,” she said. “We need them to do that immediately, because that’s going to be able to help us to be able to do our staffing. That helps us to be able to know how many classrooms we need, how many teachers we need to teach what. . . . That’s our No. 1 challenge right now.”

Wichita school Superintendent Alicia Thompson answers questions about the pending opening of schools in a press conference at the district office Friday. 
DION LEFLER / THE WICHITA EAGLE

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