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Richmond School Board OKs Laptop Purchase During Pandemic

side view of a laptop
The Chromebooks purchased by RPS will supplement existing resources to help economically disadvantaged students with distance learning. (Stock photo)

Richmond Public Schools can now move forward with plans to purchase an additional 2,030 chromebooks for students, along with internet hotspots. The laptops will go to students whose families don’t have the devices at home, and the district will prioritize distribution to high school students, ESL students and students with disabilities.

The school board approved a resolution in its last meeting allowing for emergency-related budget transfers of up to $1 million, barring objections from two or more board members. School board member Scott Barlow introduced that resolution.

“I think especially when you’re talking about budget reallocations of this size it’s important that the board still have the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback to the administration,” Barlow told VPM. “The emergency funding process is not designed to completely bypass board oversight. Of course, some of us had questions. I had questions, a couple of my colleagues had questions.”

In an email obtained by VPM, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras emailed school board members Pat Sapini and Kenya Gibson Saturday, asking them to approve a $711,000 budget transfer to pay for the chromebooks. “I'm reaching out to respectfully request that you rescind your opposition to the budget transfer I submitted to the Board last week pursuant to the resolution unanimously passed at our last meeting. As you know, per the resolution, I cannot move forward if both of you remain in opposition.”

Sapini could not be reached for comment Monday. Gibson told VPM that she was never opposed to the purchase of the devices, although she’d raised questions largely centering on security and data privacy. For example, she said she’d asked the administration for a copy of the district’s contract with T-Mobile last fall, when the company offered to provide some free devices.

“Whenever you get something for free, you want to make sure it’s not something you’re agreeing to that may not be what’s in the best interest of students,” Gibson said. “Students create a lot of data that corporations and others are eager to see. I believe policy we have that touches on that [data privacy] is several years old at least. This would be an important time to revisit that policy to ensure that it reflects the current needs and issues as it pertains to technology.”

In a Medium post, Gibson detailed other questions and said a “top-down” reallocation of funds for technology acquisition without a learning plan, corollary curriculum or infrastructure is “a significant risk.”

“It is critical that we consider every question when making an investment like this. How would IEPs be honored in a digital environment? How would the needs of English Language Learners be met? Who will support our teachers in the rollout? Will student work be assessed? Do we have other community priorities that haven’t been met? Do we have tech support for thousands of new computers?”

School board member Dawn Page said she fully supported the budget transfer to provide equity to students in the district without access to digital devices.

“I’ve heard from so many parents. And to hear their stories, to hear students saying, ‘I want a laptop. I want access to a laptop,’” Page said. “‘How can I get a laptop? I want to continue to learn, I want my children to continue to learn, I don’t want my children to fall behind.’”

Other board members, like Jonathan Young, also supported the budget transfer in order to get digital devices in the hands of students during the pandemic.

“The sooner the better, needless to say,” Young told VPM. “None of us know how long we’re going to be shut down. God forbid the next academic year, there’s a second outbreak. I pray that doesn’t happen but I think to be responsible we’ve got to plan for the worst-case scenario.”

Young says he’s happy with the administration’s plans to reallocate money that would’ve been spent on other things, like a home visiting program, to help pay for the devices.

“Obviously we’re not sending teachers to homes for the rest of the year because of the pandemic,” Young said.

The 2,030 laptops are a start. The district estimates that around 16,000 students may need access to a laptop at home, and is asking students - or parents of students - who need one to fill out this survey.

In a response to questions from school board members, the district estimates about 8,000 devices are already at school and can be sent home. But even with the purchase of around 2,030 new devices through a board-approved budget transfer and around 1,341 through a combination of local and federal grants, the district is still searching for funds for pay for about 4,629 additional devices.  

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Dawn Page as school board chair.