Metro Nashville Schools: Laptops won’t be ready for all students when school starts

(Photo: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images)
(Photo: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images)

Laptops purchased with federal pandemic recovery funds won’t be available for all Metro Nashville Public Schools students when classes resume in August, according to a district spokesman.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced earlier this month plans to spend approximately $24 million in federal CARES Act funds to buy laptops for all MNPS students and internet connection devices for students who need them.

The district will announce details in early July for how students will return to school. A roadmap for reopening outlined back-to-school options that would lean heavily on distance learning.

MNPS spokesman Sean Braisted told the Tennessee Lookout last week that the purchases won’t be complete in time to get laptops to the district’s approximately 90,000 students before school returns in early August. The school board is expected to be updated on the plans at its meeting tonight.

The computers are being purchased through a contract with Dell, and Metro Council approved the funding at last week’s meeting. The funding approval had to take place before an order could be placed.

When the laptop purchases were announced, Cooper’s office posted question and answer section on its website that said “MNPS is confident that they will be able to secure computers in time for the school year.”

“Due to high volume and demand, it is unlikely we will receive all of the computers by the beginning of the school year and anticipate a phased in receipt during the fall,” Braisted said. “We will work to prioritize delivery to those students with the highest needs first.”

The district conducted surveys in recent months to determine the technology and internet access needs of its students. Even students who already have access to computers and the internet will receive the new laptops, but only those without internet will be provided hotspot devices allowing them to connect online.

The back-to-school details are tied to where Davidson County finds itself in Cooper’s reopening plan. Currently, the city is in phase three, which would call for at least a partial in-person classroom learning plan. The district hasn’t announced if students can opt out of returning to the classroom, or if students would return on a part-time basis.

With a heavy emphasis on distance learning expected, MNPS will be confronting a substantial logistical and technological challenge.

Braisted said MNPS will handle the “implementation, troubleshooting, repairs and training” on the devices in-house and that a need for additional outside information technology support has not been identified at this time.

“We are working with external partners to develop the comprehensive plan that addresses the needs of students and staff, including communications with stakeholders, training for students and parents, as well as a robust website and helpdesk to troubleshoot and support students on both the technical and instructional needs,” Braisted said.

The back-to-school details are tied to where Davidson County finds itself in Cooper’s reopening plan. Currently, the city is in phase three, which would call for at least a partial in-person classroom learning plan. The district hasn’t announced if students can opt out of returning to the classroom, or if students would return on a part-time basis.

The district’s IT team will develop training programs for staff and students based on feedback and data derived from remote learning that took place at the end of the school year, Braisted said, adding that Metro IT director Keith Durbin has been engaged in that process.

“Most students should already be familiar with computers and the Microsoft learning environment through classroom activities, but videos and tutorials for students and parents will be available incoming Pre-K and Kindergarten students and for those who need a refresher,” Braisted said. “If we are in an in-person learning environment, students will learn more about how to use the technology in their classroom.”

School board member Rachael Anne Elrod said she thinks it’s “unfortunate” that the laptops will not be ready for all students at the start of the year. Elrod said she’s concerned about the IT staff having the bandwidth to handle the additional work that will come with servicing the new computers and troubleshooting that will arise. She said the IT department already has a great deal of work as classrooms have become more technologically equipped in recent years.

Rachael Anne Elrod (Photo: Raise Your Hand for Rachael Anne website)
Rachael Anne Elrod (Photo: Raise Your Hand for Rachael Anne website)

“It’s my understanding that there’s a national shortage, and so that’s the reason we’re not able to get all of those at once,” Elrod said. “It’s a huge order, and in the central office’s opinion the money wasn’t appropriated until late (after the council vote last week).

“So we weren’t able to obtain them before the massive rush of people getting ready for school and the likelihood of there being distance learning throughout the school year. So we weren’t able to get all 90,000 of them.”

Consultant hired with no-bid contract

The district also provided additional details about the consultant hired by Cooper’s office to help develop the back-to-school planning report.

Opportunity Labs developed the report and then leaders of Nashville’s back-to-school committee, led by MNPS Director Adrienne Battle and recovery co-chair Dr. Alex Janangir, applied “Nashville context.”

Opportunity Labs was hired with federal CARES Act funds on a $20,000 no-bid contract. Braisted said the firm was engaged by Cooper’s office in coordination with the district.

“There was not a competitive bidding process due to the emergency nature of the need and their unique background,” Braisted said. “More specific details about the agreement would have to come from Metro.”

Opportunity Labs is managed by Nashville resident Dr. Mario Ramirez, who previously served as a White House fellow in President Barack Obama’s administration. Ramirez was the acting director for the office of pandemic and emerging threats. Braisted said Ramirez also was an adviser to the “assistant Secretary for Global Affairs and Immediate Office of the Secretary on issues of emerging concern including Ebola and MERS-CoV, antimicrobial resistance, pandemic influenza, and biosecurity/biosafety.”

In its reopening plan, the district touts Opportunity Labs as an organization with “deep experience” in pandemic response, planning, public health and emergency operations. Prior to COVID-19, the previous pandemic in the United States was H1N1 in 2009.

“There was not a competitive bidding process due to the emergency nature of the need and their unique background,” Braisted said.

Elrod said she inquired about Opportunity Labs and the firm’s qualifications after she learned about the company’s role in drafting the reopening report.

“From my perspective they seem to be more qualified than those of us internally,” she said.