Clayton Schools to buy 38,000 laptops to boost online learning access

Clayton Schools plans to lease 38,000 Chromebooks to boost access to digital and virtual learning in the 2020-2021 academic school year. PHOTO: LEON STAFFORD/AJC
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Clayton Schools plans to lease 38,000 Chromebooks to boost access to digital and virtual learning in the 2020-2021 academic school year. PHOTO: LEON STAFFORD/AJC

Clayton County Schools is fast-tracking a plan to get laptops in the hands of every student after the shutdown of schools because of the coronavirus revealed a wide gap in access to tools for online learning.

The Clayton Board of Education on Monday gave school leaders permission to lease 38,000 Chromebooks for student use in September.

The district previously hoped to acquire the laptops over four years with proceeds from the county's education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).

School leaders said it was critical to acquire the laptops now to bridge gaps that became apparent in student access when Clayton switched to virtual classrooms in late March. The district also hopes to buy Wi-Fi hotspots to help the 5,000 or so students who lack internet connections access online classes.

“Digital equity is the biggest obstacle to online learning,” said Rod Smith, the school system’s technology director. “This can no longer be our reality.”

Experts said the issue is being felt across the nation. Hundreds of thousands of students could not continue their education when classes went online because they could not afford a computer. Others could not connect to the internet because the free Wi-Fi they may used in the past at libraries or coffee shops were closed and their computer networks shuttered.

“It’s more of a challenge than we realize,” said Dennis Attick, a Clayton State University assistant professor of teacher education. “We have an assumption that kids are online anyway so we think, ‘Let’s just move classes online.’ And because that is embedded in our brains, we don’t think about those who don’t have access.”

Rashawn Ray, a governance studies expert at the Brookings Institute, said further complicating matters are structural issues of poverty and lack to access to standard school materials in majority minority communities. If it is assumed everyone has a computer and access to the internet, failing to connect for coursework can be misinterpreted as skipping class.

“This discussion is important because it’s not about truancy, it’s about resources,” he said.

Clayton said the laptops will be given to students in grades three through 12 to take home on a daily basis. Students in kindergarten through second grade will have access to the laptops during the school day, but can only take them home when school is closed down for extraordinary events such as a pandemic.

The district did not provide a price tag for the computers, but said they money could come from the $17 million Clayton Schools received in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act stimulus funds; a $2.3 million Georgia Department of Education digital learning grant and a $125,000 donation to the Clayton County Public Schools Foundation from the United Way of Greater Atlanta.

Smith said the district does not expect to have the computers until September because disruptions to the national supply chain brought on by the shutdown of business over the last few months. NPD Group, a national consumer research firm, reported last month that sales of laptop computers were up 24%.

“There are lots of school districts trying to do the same thing that we’re doing, Smith said. “Most of your Chromebook and PC providers are struggling with that supply chain.”

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