Tomball ISD trustees discussed the purchase of 4,379 HP Chromebooks during an Aug. 10 workshop meeting. Trustees will vote on the item during the Aug. 11 meeting.
Currently, the district has about 14,000 Chromebooks for students and staff, Director of Technology James Watson said in a video report Aug. 10. The purchase of additional Chromebooks would move the district closer to its goal of a 1-1 student-to-device ratio, Watson said. District information shows TISD enrolls more than 18,000 students.
"That really wasn't an absolute plan at any time [to have one device per student], but I think COVID[-19] has changed a lot of things for all of us to the point of seeing the necessity to have more," Superintendent Martha Salazar-Zamora said Aug. 10. "There's a lot of sharing [currently]. There's some challenges now with sharing because we're being asked not to share certain things, so there's a lot of cleaning down, wiping down that's going to happen. So the necessity has shifted some, and it may be something that we'll talk more about because of some of the COVID-related situations that might cause that to be better in the future."
The agenda item includes TISD purchasing 4,379 HP Chromebooks and 4,378 AT&T/Verizon hot spots with the Texas Education Agency funding 50% of the cost through its Operation Connectivity initiative, Watson said.
The TEA awarded the district its Chromebook and hot spot allotment using funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to split the cost with the district. TISD will pay 50% of the cost, which totals just over $1 million to be paid for from the district's 2017 bond referendum if approved by trustees Aug. 11.
According to a July 17 news release from Gov. Greg Abbott, the TEA received $200 million in federal funding for the purchase of e-learning devices and home internet solutions to enable remote learning for students who lack connectivity in the upcoming 2020-21 school year, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported. The funding allowed the TEA to purchase and distribute devices, hot spots and routers, among other technological needs as identified by local education agencies.
"We've partnered with the state as well as many other districts in the state to bulk purchase Chromebooks as well as hot spots," Watson said. "We are expecting these devices to come in sometime around the October time frame, and we'll be deploying them out to campuses at that time."
When the new devices are received, the district will be close to a 1-1 ratio of students to devices, as some staff also have Chromebooks, Salazar-Zamora said. However, she said the district currently has a sufficient number of devices to meet student needs without hitting that 1-1 ratio.
"I think it's super important that we continue to talk about maybe not just where we were, but where we are and where we think we might need to be, given that things are changing quickly," she said. "This [allotment] definitely gave us a good push."
Watson said the district hopes to still purchase additional Chromebooks as well as replace teacher and staff desktop computers with laptops so teachers can be more mobile and have access at home and in the classroom.
Although TISD was awarded more than 4,300 Chromebooks, Chief Operating Officer Steven Gutierrez said the district requested significantly more devices. On the contrary, Salazar-Zamora said the district will be receiving many more hot spots than needed. However, the TEA's allotment for TISD was a packaged deal, Salazar-Zamora said, meaning the district had to take or leave it all.
"The choice to even have [Operation] Connectivity—although I keep saying I'm happy to have it—was not something we asked for. I think at one point we had thought the [federal] dollars would be funneled to us, and we would make the decisions for how to spend our dollars. I am grateful for this, but it is not the amount nor in the distribution in which we had asked by application," Salazar-Zamora said.
Gutierrez said almost 2,000 families in the district have indicated a need for devices or internet access. Service for the hot spots is provided for one year; afterward, either the district or the parents themselves would pick up the cost to continue the service, Gutierrez said.
Additionally, hot spots may not have the bandwidth to support multiple students at home working on school work simultaneously, he said.
The district is set to begin the fall semester with virtual and face-to-face options Sept. 8, with more than 50% of families opting to begin virtually, Salazar-Zamora said Aug. 10. Previously, the district had chosen to begin the school year virtually only Aug. 18, Community Impact Newspaper reported.
"Really the goal there [in requesting devices]—especially when looking at the prospect of a virtual start—was to really provide a device and internet access to every household in the district, so every student would have been able to have that connectivity," Gutierrez said."Unfortunately, the state did not comply with that vision that we had. But we are grateful that there will be over 4,500 devices that we will be able to identify based on information that we've already collected from families letting us know about their access to a device or internet access."