The Pandemic Propelled CPS From The Tech ‘Dark Ages’ Into The Modern Computing Age

CPS bought 170,000 laptops and iPads in the last year. Elated school staff wonder if the tech focus can be sustained.

Maria Sanchez helps her daughter, Jessica, a kindergartener at Orozco Community Academy, join her class via video chat on the first day of school for all Chicago Public Schools students on Sept 8, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Maria Sanchez helps her daughter, Jessica, a kindergartener at Orozco Community Academy, join her class via video chat on the first day of school for all Chicago Public Schools students on Sept 8, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The Pandemic Propelled CPS From The Tech ‘Dark Ages’ Into The Modern Computing Age

CPS bought 170,000 laptops and iPads in the last year. Elated school staff wonder if the tech focus can be sustained.

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Over the last year during the pandemic, Chicago Public Schools transformed itself from a school district that was woefully behind in technology by adding roughly 170,000 laptops and iPads at a cost of more than $86 million.

As a result, 350 of the 499 schools run by the district now have a mobile device for every student, school district officials estimate.

The devices went to low-income students who otherwise would have not been able to participate in remote learning, but also to schools with more affluent families whose children made up a disproportionate number of the students who returned to in-person learning this spring, a WBEZ analysis found.

But overall, WBEZ’s analysis shows a remarkably proportionate distribution of iPads, Chromebooks and other laptops between March 2020 through February 2021. Some 46% of devices bought during the pandemic went to schools with almost all low-income students and those schools make up 45% of all district-run schools.

Meanwhile, about 17% of schools have majority non-low income students. Those schools got about 16% of the devices.

The feat of equal distribution of devices, in a city and district where access has often been reserved for the advantaged, didn’t happen by accident, said CPS Chief Information Officer Phillip DiBartolo. Early on, his office worked with the relatively new equity office to determine what students were likely not to have computers at home.

“We put different data elements that might connote need, whether it was free and reduced meals or Medicaid or students in a temporary living situation,” he said. “So we were very intentional about it.”

Principals and teachers at schools that had little technology prior to the pandemic are giddy with the prospect of new access.

“We were so far in the Dark Ages with technology, and now my school has promethium boards and I can’t believe the amount of new computers,” said Christine Dussault, a teacher at Chase Elementary in Logan Square. “It feels like extra computers, which I’ve never in a million years thought I would say. We actually have what we need for the technology piece for the first time ever.”

Having regular computer access could be “game changing” for students, said Dan Kramer, principal of Roosevelt High School in Albany Park on the North Side. It allows them to keep everything in one place, including notes from classes and lists of assignments.

“We’ve had this incredible learning experience this past year for everyone … kids, family, teachers,” Kramer said. “It’s just a great thing to build a school around. This is the time to go one-to-one. We’ve practiced it for the past year so we know we can do it.”

But getting to this point was chaotic and challenging, and there are worries looking ahead about whether CPS can truly sustain it. Principals and teachers wonder whether this will simply be a moment in time or the beginning of a shift that lasts.

A break from the past

The pandemic computer distribution in Chicago Public Schools stood in sharp contrast to the way the school district used to operate.

Historically, it was mostly left up to principals to prioritize technology for their individual schools and then figure out how to pay for it. That meant some schools might have a lot of computers if they fundraised, won a grant or gave up a security guard or a reading specialist to pay for them. Others had little.

The result: access to computers and how they were used in schools was wildly unequal.

In 2018, that started to change. CPS launched a five-year initiative with a goal of one-on-one technology access. It began by directing computers to schools serving mostly poor students, and by spring 2020, 80% of the 54,000 computers bought under that program went to schools serving those students, according to WBEZ’s analysis of CPS data. CPS spent about $32 million on these devices prior to the pandemic.

But the pandemic made clear how desperately some schools still needed devices. When it became clear in March 2020 that remote learning was coming, Chicago Public Schools told principals to distribute all the computers they had in their buildings. Yet, tens of thousands of students still needed one.

The school district quickly put in orders for new computers. Some came from schools that had money in their school-level budgets for computers. The district also used federal stimulus funds, especially as it started rolling in during the summer of 2020.

Maribel Víafranca picks up a computer for her son from Richardson Middle School on April 10, 2020 as remote learning was getting underway in Chicago Public Schools. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

More recently, the school district used federal stimulus money to automatically provide devices to schools based on how many students planned to return in February, March and April for in-person learning. Officials said they wanted to make sure all students returning had a district-issued device.

This is when schools with more affluent students wound up getting more technology. At schools where less than half the students are considered low-income, an average of 70% of students were expected to return. It was only 45% at schools with a majority of low-income students. Some schools serving the most well-off students in the district — Mount Greenwood, Nettelhorst, Thorp, Blaine and Mayer — got hundreds of computers to support in-person learning.

School district officials stress that schools serving low-income students got the vast majority of the computers distributed through the modern technology program launched before the pandemic so that should even the situation out.

It is expected that schools that got iPads, Chromebooks and laptops during this time will be allowed to keep them, but no decisions have been made.

A tale of two schools

The story of computer access in Chicago Public Schools and how it played out can be told by looking at two North Side high schools — Roosevelt and Senn. They are less than five miles apart and are both in old, grand buildings.

Prior to the pandemic, Roosevelt High School had carts of computers that teachers might use in classes. But mostly students used textbooks, notebooks and pens or pencils. It had just been named the city’s first dual language high school and was focused on building up that program.

“A year ago, it looked an awful lot like classrooms 20 years ago, maybe 40 years ago,” Kramer said. He believes all high school students should have computers at the ready, but Roosevelt has a lot of competing expenses. Kramer calls it a typical neighborhood high school with mostly Latino students. More than 90% are low income.

Last spring, when the school had to stand up remote learning, Kramer had no idea how many students needed devices. Then, teachers started telling him many were using their phones to connect, do homework and submit it.

“It just showed us the equity issues,” Kramer said. “I can just imagine a student trying to do an AP English assignment on their cell phone.”

Like many schools, Roosevelt was able to get about 180 new computers by using discretionary money, according to district records. Then, over the summer it got hundreds more. District records show those were paid for with the first round of federal stimulus money.

Roosevelt got another 45 laptops this spring to support in-person learning. About 27% of its 1,000 students were expected back.

Meanwhile, when Senn students left school in March 2020, they all had computers in hand. Principal Mary Beck had already implemented one-on-one technology.

“When we decided to do this three or four years ago, it was because a lot of the elementary schools in our neighborhood had already shifted,” she said. Senn is in Edgewater and has a diverse student population with about 76% of students considered low income.

“And then ultimately, it is just what students are expected to use when they go to college, when they go to the workforce and so to not be one-on-one, it feels like we are not preparing students,” Beck said.

The school has a parent fundraising group, Friends of Senn, that has helped in the past. But the real boom came in the spring of 2019 when, through the district’s tech modernization program, the school got an additional 1,000 devices.

As she does every year, Beck built into her school-level spending money to buy new computers. Through the past year, she bought more than 700 with her school’s money. She’s also trying innovative ways to keep them functioning, such as teaching students how to fix them.

Senn got 125 more Chromebooks and 25 teacher laptops in April for in-person learning. The school was expecting about 35% of its 1,500 students to return.

While getting devices into the hands of high school students seems like a no-brainer, elementary school teachers are just as enthused by the prospect of having them.

Hala Karim, who teaches 7th and 8th grade English at Curtis Elementary in Roseland on the Far South Side, said remote learning has been extremely difficult for her students. Their home internet can be slow or not working and when they break their computers, they get mbarrassed and just start using their phones.

Karim hopes the students will return the computers so she can use them in her classroom next year. Her former school in Cincinnati had one-on-one technology and the entire curriculum is online.

“There’s a variety of games and activities that are engaging to students today that are available online,” she said. “I just feel like it offers so many more opportunities.”

Looking ahead

The unplanned influx of devices is well timed for Chicago Public Schools. The school district spent $135 million over the past two years to create instructional material for every grade level and all the curriculum is online. As it rolls out, the school district is planning to provide training.

Giving teachers a bevy of online resources makes it more likely they will continue to use computers in their classrooms and incorporate technology into the school day.

Yet experts say there are a lot of factors that school districts, like Chicago Public Schools, need to consider if they want to be one-on-one going forward.

Before the pandemic, computers were mostly left in classrooms when students went home. In fact, when the pandemic struck, some principals complained about handing over their stockpile of devices, which they had put a lot of effort into building.

But this mentality has to shift, said Lydia Logan, the executive director of a program at Digital Promise, a national education advocacy organization. Logan said that students need to be able to use the computers at home and that they have access to the internet.

This is key to erasing what experts have dubbed the “homework gap,” a term used to highlight that some students have access to the internet at home and others don’t.

“We believe that it is an equity issue,” said Logan, who leads a program that provides devices to students in middle and high schools. “You get on your smartphone or get on your tablet or get on your laptop to watch a ‘how-to’ video or ask a question about an animal. But if they don’t have that access, they are literally cut off from their ability to learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it.”

During the pandemic, the school district realized that too many students lacked internet access. It rolled out Chicago Connected, a four-year, $50 million program that offered low-income families free service. Initially, it is being paid for through philanthropy, but the school district eventually will have to pick up the cost.

Many students and teachers complained that the internet provided is slow and inconsistent. A survey by Kids First Chicago, which partnered with the district to support Chicago Connected, found that 60% of respondents can’t stream video on several devices at once and a third reported slow browsing speeds several days a week. In response, providers doubled internet speeds.

The bigger problem is that no one really knows the differences in internet infrastructure between neighborhoods, said Nicole Marwell, associate professor at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. Marwell is currently surveying families to see how the internet works for them.

Part of the problem, she said, is that the infrastructure was installed by private companies over time, and that even they don’t really know what is in the ground.

Another issue is that some schools don’t have enough bandwidth to support hundreds of children trying to access the internet at once. DiBartolo said problems can often be cleared up by showing teachers how to run videos or other programs using less data. The school district also recently announced it is connecting all its schools over time with fiber-optic cables to improve internet speed.

The $84 million effort, mostly paid for with federal e-rate money, also should help with connectivity in neighborhoods.

Despite these innovations, there are still worries about the future. While many applaud Chicago Connected as a step to get families on the internet, what happens after four years when the funding ends? Will the school district keep paying for it?

Teacher Rachel Tingley said she has the same concern about computers. Her former school, Edison Park Elementary, had a three-year technology plan that baked into the school budget upgrading and replacing devices. Edison Park is on the far North Side, with 17% low-income students and more than 70% white students.

Her current school, Franklin Fine Arts Center, is more diverse and has substantially more low-income students. She thinks the city should see the internet and access to devices not as something for the privileged, but as something everyone needs.

“The way of the future is going to be working with computers,” she said. “Do we need computers all the time? No. But do we need to know how to use them properly in the future? Yes.”

Like Tingley, other teachers and principals hope that the school district doesn’t leave it up to schools to pay for replacing and updating devices going forward. If so, they fear that in five years the school district will be back where it was before the pandemic, with some schools flush with technology and others without.

DiBartolo said right now technology costs are expected to be handled with school level budgets, but that could change. The top three leaders at CPS are all leaving and the district will soon be getting a whole new slate of leaders.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.