ITHACA, N.Y.—With the first full semester of the Ithaca City School District’s hybrid learning model nearly finished, some students came forward at this week’s ICSD Board of Education meeting with concerns over the ability of the technology provided by the district to handle more distance learning as the coronavirus pandemic rages onward and forces some students to take either some or all of their classes online.

The board has been persistent in fielding feedback from teachers, parents and students over the last few months as the district has deployed in-person, hybrid and remote learning methods to its students. That feedback has been uneven, with a mix of responses coming from teachers invited to present to the board as well as the selected student representatives from schools in the district. Monday was probably the most negative, though, as students aired grievances with the laptops provided by the district in anticipation of greater need for digital learning this year.

Student Representatives Adam Saar and Emma Z brought forth some rather concerning criticisms of the distance learning aspects, particularly in that the district-provided Google Chromebooks, which had been purchased and given out to students over the last several months, were unable to bear the strain of certain parts of online learning. Namely, Saar said that through their personal experiences plus conversations and surveys with many students, he and the other student representatives had found that the Chromebooks would routinely shut down or crash if students were forced to pull up too many concurrent apps, at least three of which are necessary to use simultaneously while logged on for class. 

“The more we talk to people, the more it’s obvious that Chromebooks are just a huge, huge issue for people right now,” Saar said. “For online classrooms, we need to have Google Meet open, we need to have Canvas open, and we need to have probably a Google document open. For the Chromebooks, for most people, it’s a pick-two. You open the third and the Chromebook crashes. If you’re especially unlucky, it’s a pick-one.”

To their credit, the students came with their own organic solutions, though some of their ideas did seem either complex to accomplish or infeasible for the district. Saar asked if there was a way for the students to return their Chromebooks if they aren’t being used for whatever reason, in part so that students who do need multiple devices in order to best handle their schoolwork could have access to them. Fellow representative Grace Lim said a suggestion she had heard from other students was to look into whether there is excess money from the capital project fund that would be available to purchase more or better laptops. 

“We’re not asking for the best thing that’s out there, we understand that this is what we have and we’re going to work with it,” Emma said. “Some people can work with a Chromebook and it works for them. But when we’re talking about getting new Chromebooks, we’re talking about people for whom one Chromebook isn’t working for them. (…) Certainly I think in the long run it would be a good goal to look into newer devices, but right now I think we understand that that isn’t an option.”

District Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown seemed aware of the issue, though without many concrete answers for a quick fix. Brown mentioned that even if the district was to make a mass order of Chromebooks immediately, it could take weeks or even months for those to be delivered to the district’s students—part of a wider issue nationwide that has seen longer wait times between ordering and delivery.

“There are a lot of things that need our attention right now, including this, but I’m asking us to be very strategic in how we move forward,” Brown said. “The transition from our Chromebook to another device will take a significant amount of infrastructure work as well.”

Board Vice President Sean Eversley Bradwell said the board would ask the district’s director of technology, Zachary Lind, to discuss the particular solution of laptop exchanges among students as a possibility during the next board meeting, which will take place on Dec. 8. 

“As a board we understand the urgency,” Bradwell said. “We’ll find whatever solution we can in the interim, knowing that a long-term solution is going to be a little more nuanced.”

Board members Erin Croyle and Chris Malcolm both thanked the students for coming forward with the problem. 

In a final note, Brown also announced that he would be delivering the keynote speech to the National Alliance of Black School Educators annual conference, a prestigious honor that many of the board members said they would be virtually attending in early December.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com