By TALIA WIENER
The Montclair school district will start what officials are describing as a “one-to-one” technology initiative in the fall — aiming to eventually provide every student with a school-issued laptop.
Christopher Graber, the district’s technology director, told Board of Education members at a July 14 “retreat” meeting that includes 3,700 devices purchased with federal loans for students in grades six through 12. Those devices are set to arrive in August, he said.
Graber didn’t say at the meeting if those newly purchased laptops would be Chromebooks, like the devices provided to students who requested them during remote and hybrid learning in 2020-21.
First graders will be provided Chromebooks purchased last year. Kindergartners will be provided a new set of Chromebooks, Graber said.
And while the district can’t yet guarantee devices for all students in grades two through five, he said, that’s a goal as well. The district’s technology team is still sorting through more than 2,500 recently returned devices and assessing them for reissuance.
“I’m confident that we can get enough Chromebooks at each grade level,” Graber said at the board meeting.
When schools closed for the pandemic the district began what would ultimately be a distribution of 4,000 devices and 100 hot spots to students, and helped transition 67 families to the low-cost Comcast Internet Essentials connectivity program, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local by email in June.
He and Graber haven’t answered further questions sent by email by Montclair Local about the district’s digital divide initiatives, but have offered to have a discussion to discuss the programs; that discussion is still being scheduled.
Graber said at the board meeting his objective is “to provide ubiquitous access to all students.”
Ponds told Montclair Local in his email the district remains committed “to exploring new opportunities and services to ensure every student has the tools necessary to succeed.”
At the end of the 2019-20 school year and throughout 2020-21, access to devices and connectivity was a baseline requirement for remote learning. Montclair started 2020-21 with all classes held remotely, before eventually transitioning to a hybrid learning model starting in April. High schoolers didn’t return until the final weeks of the school year, and some families opted to keep their kids home all year.
Through that process, Montclair and other districts saw challenges getting devices to students, as a backlog last summer delayed shipments to school systems. But eventually, the devices filtered out to families that had requested them, before being collected at the end of the school year.
Students attending summer classes were allowed to keep their devices for those sessions, Graber said.
Additionally, “if there’s a family that needs their computer because that’s the only computer that they have, they’re going to keep that computer,” he said. “They’re going to keep those hot spots. They’re going to keep their internet.”
In March, Gov. Phil Murphy declared that the state’s “digital divide is no more,” signaling the completion of an effort to get a device and internet access to any student identified as in need of remote instruction. Early in the pandemic, the state estimated 231,000 of New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students needed either a device, connectivity or both.
Murphy stressed in March the laptops “are not just for home instruction. They’re just as critical as any textbook.”
Come the fall, all school districts in New Jersey will be required to offer only five-day, in-person learning. Graber and Ponds didn’t say at the board meeting how the devices being distributed for the coming year would be used, with remote learning over.
But Graber said the district must remain attentive to the changing needs of its students. Many families received multiple devices from the district in 2020-21, with one family receiving six devices during the school year, he said.
“People’s lives change,” he said. “Someone might have a job one day and might not have a job the next day.”