Thousands of Prince William County high school students without computers at home will receive new laptops in early May to help them participate in online lessons planned to begin in mid-April, Superintendent Steven Walts announced Wednesday.
Walts shared the news that the school division has already purchased 15,500 HP Touchscreen laptops for students during the school board's first electronic meeting held in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic school closures.
The April 1 meeting was called in part for Walts to inform the school board about the school division’s plans to begin delivering more formal instruction to students when they return from spring break, which is next week.
Students have already been home for more than two weeks. Schools shuttered on Friday, March 13, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Ralph Northam later announced that schools would remain closed for the rest of the year.
School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef wrote a letter to the Prince William Board of Supervisors on Sunday, March 29, asking for $5 million in emergency county money to cover half of what Lateef said was a $10 million cost to purchase 27,000 computers for high school students.
The supervisors declined to discuss or vote on the request during their Tuesday, March 31, board meeting. Instead, Board Chair Ann Wheeler (D) said the county board needs more information about the plan for the devices before they can decide whether to allocate the extra money.
But the school division apparently was not waiting for extra money from the county to begin purchasing computers for students.
In his remarks during the school board meeting, Walts said the computers had to be purchased right away because of a surge of similar orders from school divisions around the U.S. in the wake of coronavirus school closures.
“We needed to place this order immediately as we received word that a surge in buying of computers by schools across the country could make receiving them difficult,” Walts told the board.
“We appreciate the school board collaboration with the board of county supervisors to seek additional funding for more computers, and if that is achieved, we will order additional to support more students,” he said.
It’s not clear whether the school board knew of the purchase before Wednesday's meeting. School division spokeswoman Diana Gulotta said she expected the board was told about it for the first time Wednesday evening.
Because the computers were purchased through a "master agreement" that was previously approved by the school board, the school division's standing regulation requiring school board approval for purchases in excess of $250,000 did not apply, Gulotta said.
While such a large purchase of school equipment is unusual, Gulotta said making large purchase through master agreements is "very routine."
Lateef did not mention the school division had already purchased 15,500 new computers for students in his letter to the board of supervisors.
The computers cost $6.4 million, which includes installing software, setting them up with school accounts, and delivery, Gulotta said.
The school division found the money for the computers by using about $2.5 million “from an already planned laptop purchase,” Gulotta said.
The rest came from “other division funds,” Gulotta said.
The plan is to deliver the computers to high school students who do not have computers at home, Gulotta said.
“Our first priority is to get technology to every high schooler who might need it, focused on students that have no technology at home,” Gulotta said. “We will determine this through [a] phone survey in multiple languages. Most of our high schools do not provide laptops to students to take home.”
“The school division will also provide high school students with devices by first removing them from school classrooms where we can,” Gulotta added. “We expect we may be able to use a couple thousand from existing stock.”
The new computers will supplement that effort, Gulotta said.
If the school division is able to fulfill the need for computers among high school students, staff will begin working through the other grades “especially if additional funds are provided by the county,” Gulotta said.
“PWCS has 91,500+ students. The number of families with no technology is currently unknown, and again we will work to contact all families in their home language to determine need,” she said.
The school division is also planning to make internet hot spots available in several school parking lots for students who do not have internet connections at home, Walts said.
Walts provided more information about instruction plans for the remaining weeks of the school year during the meeting. Walts said the third quarter will be extended until Friday, April 24.
Students will be able to redo work and retake tests to improve their third-quarter grades up until that time, Walts said.
Formal lesson modules will be uploaded to the county school division's website starting after spring break.
Fourth-quarter instruction will be optional and will not be graded, Walts said.
Grades for the school year will be based on students' coursework for the first three quarters.
On May 1, seniors with all graduation requirements satisfied will be declared to have met all graduation requirements, while seniors with remaining requirements will be granted an extension for credit recovery, Walts said.
In May and June, the school division will begin using the online "Canvas" learning management system for students in kindergarten through 11th grade to deliver online lessons according to schedules set by school principals.
Finally, on June 12, K-11 instruction will conclude, and diplomas will be mailed to graduates.
The school division has canceled graduations for now but "will continue to seek methods of celebrating our graduates either virtually or in-person," which could include an in-person ceremony in August, depending on the status of the virus, Walts said.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com