Saturday, May 2, 2020

Senators Help Untangle Computer Red Tape for Pottstown School District's Online Learning Efforts

Photo Courtesy of Pottstown School District
Some of the Chromebook computers being issued to Pottstown students to allow them to continue learning online for the remainder of the school year.

Desperately short of computers for students to take home for on-line learning, efforts at the state and federal level were necessary to unshackle the constraints placed on 200 laptop computers the Pottstown School District had on hand but could not use.

Thursday, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's office announced it had "secured a commitment from the U.S. Department of Education ensuring that students in the Pottstown School District can use laptops purchased through federal funding for at-home learning."
State Sen. Bob Mensch

Through the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant program, Pottstown schools  had recently purchased 200 laptop computers for after-school usage. When Pennsylvania ordered schools to close in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the school district sought to assign these laptops to students to better facilitate at-home learning. "Unfortunately, the district was constrained by the grant’s parameters," according to a press release from Toomey's office.

In response, state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24th Dist. worked with  Toomey’s office to urge the education department to allow for regulatory flexibility for all schools and districts, given the unprecedented circumstances. 

"Yesterday, the DOE changed its guidance and issued a new clarification to allow for the reallocation of federally purchased resources based on need, such as the laptops in Pottstown," according to a press release from Mensch's office issued Friday.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has everyone across our state facing many unprecedented circumstances,” said Mensch. 

“With schools closing before the end of the school year, districts had to adjust the ways in which they taught their students. Online learning is in place to keep students active and learning, similar to the way they would if schools were still open. It was of utmost importance that the students at Pottstown School District had access to what they needed to have a successful rest of their year," he said.
Pottstown Chromebooks awaiting
"A week ago after reaching out to both Senator Mensch and Representative Ciresi, they were able to connect me with Senator Toomey who helped in a favorable decision concerning the use of 21st-century grant devices," said Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez. 

"We are grateful to them all. Much needed educational tools will now get in the hands of students and help them continue to develop the skills needed to become successful adults. This is a win for students and community," Rodriguez said. 

"Thanks to our legislators who have been working together to solve these complex problems during very challenging times," he said.

“I was happy to help the Pottstown School District cut through the red tape to ensure their students have access to at-home learning," Toomey said in the press release issued by his office Thursday. "I thank Senator Mensch, the Pottstown School District, and the U.S. Department of Education for working with me on this matter.”

Pat Toomey
Unlike wealthier districts whose students either have computers and Internet access at home, or are able to afford to provide computers to all students, Pottstown schools fell short in all three categories.

"We have some families that have issues with having access to the Internet, but absolutely our number one issue was households not having devices," Rodriguez told the school board during the April 23 meeting held, without irony, online.

One reason is the 2019 median income in Pottstown is $49,377.

Fortunately, as The Mercury reported "April 27, the district had already begun a roll-out, years behind other districts, of computers for all high school students, which is why new learning was able to begin sooner there.

New online learning, as opposed to review of previously taught subjects and enrichment, began for the high school students on April 20.

It was at the middle school that Chromebook computers purchased through the 21st-Century program, were in the buildings, but were not allowed to be issued to the students to take home because of the federal grant rules.

New online learning for the middle school began on April 27.

But it's not until this Monday, May 4, that new learning gets underway for Pottstown's elementary students, nearly a month later than many other wealthier districts in the area.

Ultimately, it cost the district about $1.2 million to get computers into the hands of all students, and teachers trained in how to use the Google systems to teach them.

That effort was helped by an anonymous $60,000 contribution toward the effort, made after the donor read about the district's plight in the April 5 edition of The Mercury.

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