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Most Pittsfield teachers want to limit Chromebook usage to the classroom, but students and families want to keep the computers, a survey found

Chromebook on table

The results of a survey conducted by Pittsfield Public Schools on its Chromebook distribution are now available to members of the Pittsfield School Committee, with the aims of reaching a decision on how to deploy the computers as part of the upcoming budget. 

PITTSFIELD — A survey on the future of the city school district's Chromebook program has yielded mixed results.

While teachers and administrators want to revert back to the days of sharing a stash of laptops that live in a classroom cart, a slim majority of students and families want the district to continue its program of providing every student with their own Chromebook to use exclusively throughout the year.

Superintendent Joseph Curtis presented the findings of the survey to the Pittsfield School Committee at its regular meeting Wednesday. Curtis did not make a formal recommendation at the meeting, instead opting to let committee members review open-ended responses from the survey.

“It’s about equity,” Curtis said. “It’s about access. It’s about instruction. It’s about so many things. … I wanted to ensure that you had this information and that we provided our staff, our students and our families a voice about this topic.”

The survey was prompted by a high loss rate of Chromebooks, a lightweight and low-cost laptop computer, in the school system. Curtis reported previously that 2,088 were lost last school year, and the district was on pace to lose another 2,000 this year.

Those losses are projected to ring up to the tune of over $1 million for the schools. The costs of the laptops have largely been covered by state and federal grants up until this point, but that funding will end next school year.

The district is determining if it will continue to provide the Chromebooks, which began 1:1 deployment for virtual learning during the pandemic, out of its own pocket. The schools would have to request an additional $500,000 in its upcoming budget if all students continued in the distribution, Curtis said during the presentation.

Participants were asked if they would want to see the 1:1 laptop distribution continue in their respective school levels or if they would want to see the district return to the classroom cart model.

Providing the students with a cart in each of their classrooms would allow them to participate with the machines in class, but no longer take the laptops home for school or personal use. Teachers also would not be able to assign homework that required students to use technology or the internet.

According to the results, nearly 77 percent of educators and administrators across all grade levels would prefer to return to the classroom cart model. This compares to about 44 percent of students and families surveyed.

The survey indicates that 56 percent of students and families, combined across all grade levels, would support continuing the 1:1 distribution. Out of all respondents, elementary families were the only nonstaff group that said they would prefer the cart model, with about 60 percent of elementary families selecting that option.

Roughly 65 percent of high school families, conversely, indicated that they wanted the 1:1 distribution to continue.

The survey drew 1,062 respondents among families and students and 480 responses from educators and administrators.

Many educators surveyed voiced their concerns about the lack of care being taken to handle the laptops by their students, indicating that many students often arrive to class with their computers uncharged or damaged. Some also noted that students were using the laptops to communicate with each other electronically, which was providing a distraction in the classroom.

“Elementary students don't have the tools to use chromebooks appropriately (typing, safety/care of tech) and it is a distraction,” one elementary teacher wrote when surveyed.

Some teachers were in favor of maintaining the 1:1 distribution, particularly for the older grade levels.

“As a high school teacher of both our highest need [English learner] students and high-achieving AP students — students taking home Chromebooks is a must because not all students finish assignments at the same rate,” one teacher wrote. “It would be impossible to deal with absences and make-up work otherwise, etcetera.”

Many of the educators surveyed at the elementary level asked if it would be a valid solution to keep the 1:1 distribution for higher grades, and go back to the cart model for younger kids.

Curtis said that could be an option for consideration in the meeting.

Family members surveyed questioned whether or not elementary students needed the computers. Some respondents claimed that their students did not have much schoolwork assigned to them requiring use of the machines. Others said their children benefitted from having access to extracurricular programs, such as the ST Math training program.

Parents at the elementary and middle school levels said that in some cases, they felt it was just another screen in their home, and they’d rather see their children return to analog methods.

“If we were still in remote learning, I would say allow them to go home,” said one elementary family survey respondent. “We are back to in-person learning. Let them utilize the laptops while in school. Give the children some good ol’ fashioned paper homework.”

There were also calls for implementing accountability measures, including families paying for damages or replacements.

Several parents raised concerns about accessibility for students and families who did not have such devices at home. Across all the grade levels, parents wondered if there wasn’t a middle ground solution to be had.

“I think it is hard to make a blanket decision because student needs vary,” one elementary parent wrote. “Some families have home computers and some don’t.”

Some families also echoed the educators’ thoughts in their own responses, indicating that they’d like to see the solution implemented based on the need.

“It’s difficult to make this an ‘all or nothing’ decision,” one middle school parent wrote. “Elementary schools should have carts, middle and high schools should have their own machines.”

Although no formal action was taken by the committee, its members did weigh in on the issue after the presentation. William Cameron, the committee’s chair, said he was “appalled” at the loss rate, and asked if the district was planning to collect the units at the end of the school year to learn more about the nature of the loss.

Cameron wasn’t alone in voicing his frustration. Committee member Sara Hathaway recalled her own experience teaching using laptops, saying that they were a “wall between teachers and students.”

“I’m disheartened with the loss, the dollar figure associated with it,” said Dan Elias, the committee’s vice chair. “That’s hard to grasp.”

Matt Martinez can be reached at mmartinez@berkshireeagle.com.

News Reporter

Matt Martinez is a news reporter at The Berkshire Eagle. He worked at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, graduated Marquette University. He is a former Report for America corps member.

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