ITHACA, N.Y.—At the last Ithaca City School District Board of Education meeting of the year, student concerns about technology were at least somewhat addressed by the district’s Chief Information Officer Zach Lind, though questions are sure to remain as hybrid learning stretches into another marking period in 2021.

You can watch the full meeting here. 

At a meeting in November, the board’s student liaisons had presented a slew of issues that they and other students had encountered regarding the Chromebooks that the district has issued to students to help them with distance learning. Most of the problems centered on the Chromebooks being unable to handle the burden of working while also streaming video from classes—a basic, integral component of the distance learning regimen.

The problems were particularly concerning considering the importance the Chromebooks have taken on during the pandemic, with hundreds of students either opting to stay at home or forced to do so because schools can only hold so many while maintaining social distance. Serendipitously, since the meeting took place, the district announced it would be turning to fully online learning until Jan. 4 at least.

“We’re never going to solve for perfect, there’s always going to be variables that we can’t control,” Lind acknowledged, noting that the school district has distributed 5,250 Chromebooks to over 3,000 households, meaning the success of distance learning is at least in part dependent on the internet connections at those individual households, as well as connection in the school buildings themselves for teachers simulcasting lessons.

The issue of equitable tech access isn’t necessarily new for the district or for Tompkins County in general, though it has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Rural parts of the county, as board member Sean Eversley Bradwell noted, have struggled with broadband access for years. But the Chromebook problems seemed like something that needed to be addressed with some immediacy, which is why the board had Lind in to lay out a plan to rectify the situation for students.

Lind listed the most prominent issues with the current set-up as connectivity for Google Meet, slow Chromebook processors, overall broadband issues, crowded internet networks for students at home and an overload of tabs running simultaneously on computers.

Lind also compiled a list of tips for those struggling with their Chromebooks, though admittedly most of these are things people have already tried. He stated that limiting open tabs, restarting devices daily, clearing the user profile, getting rid of unnecessary extensions, checking the speed of your home network, contacting the library staff of the school, or putting in a family support ticket with the district. To clarify, he said the district has been able to refine its process of addressing support tickets, churning through multiple tickets per day now—a stark change from earlier in the year, when backlogs of tickets made wait times stretch much longer.

The presentation further included a “Next Steps” section, which included outreach and communication, teacher education, continued student feedback and continued technology department work. The outreach will be done through homeroom videos, posted on the district website and pushed via the district’s social media, and will likely focus on educating students about how to navigate problems when they arise. Similarly, Lind said the teacher education portion would include information about the computer’s capabilities, so they don’t accidentally overload student’s processors, and how best to help students who are experiencing problems in real-time.

“For us, it’s easy to get into trying to solve as many things as we can and maybe not be as proactive to get out there and get into conversations with out students,” Lind admitted, emphasizing the need for student feedback and discussion with them.

Bradwell asked about a timetable if the district wanted to change course from Chromebooks and invest in different hardware, but Lind said such a switch could take 6-8 months due to supply chain issues.

Grace Lim, one of the student liaisons, reiterated the students’ suggestion that the district find a way to distribute additional Chromebooks to students who feel they need them, as the liaisons have heard from many students that would be a helpful step. Lind seemed tepid on that notion, but did say they could try to institute some sort of lending program going forward.

“It’d be really hard for us to scale up and get two devices to lots and lots and lots of students, but it might be a good solution where we work with our libraries, for example, to have extra devices that students could check out if they knew there was a big presentation or really key tasks or something like that,” Lind said. “There might be a system we can develop there.”

Matt Butler

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