NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s distance learning efforts got a boost Monday as the Board of Estimate and Taxation voted to spend $1.6 million on technology, funding laptops for the City’s youngest students and for 300 of the district’s teachers.
But any lingering hopes the Board of Education had for their 2020-21 operating budget were dealt a severe blow, as the BET went forward with the funding as proposed a month ago, ignoring pleas for an additional $1.5 million in education funding.
The Board of Education is wrestling with a need to make cuts in spite of a $9.9 million increase in funding from the City. They are automatically $1.5 million short of goal, given that Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski laid out $6.6 million in cuts but the discrepancy in funding is $8.1 million.
Adamowski had asked Board members to try to get that $1.5 million from the city. If they didn’t do that, the resultant cuts would impact student learning directly, he said.
BET members made no comment as they voted to advance the budget as had been proposed. The budget will go to the Common Council, and if the Council doesn’t increase its budget cap by June 1, the BET’s recommended budget is likely to be final.
“The Board of Education is disappointed that additional funding for ELL programming was not found, but we will do our best to realize savings in the end of this year (operations) and roll them over to next year,” Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said Tuesday.
“We are very very grateful to the city, the BET and the mayor for all the resources they have provided to support our students and families during this crisis,” Board Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux wrote Tuesday.
‘Planning for a different learning environment’
The technology purchases will mean there’s a one-to-one ratio of students with computers at Norwalk Public Schools, NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said to the BET.
When the schools closed on short notice, the City handed out 8,300 Chromebooks to students in grades four through 12, NPS Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi said recently. The devices were given to fourth and fifth graders in the third week, Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers said. The City used Rainy Day Fund money to purchase Chromebooks.
Now, NPS is set to buy 2,700 Dell laptops for students in kindergarten through third grade, and 300 laptops for their teachers. The Dell Latitude 3190 laptops will be purchased for $396 each and the teacher’s units will cost $515 each – “all at steeply discounted/subsidized rates from Dell,” Adamowski wrote to Mayor Harry Rilling. Another $50,000 will be reserved for tablet covers, “additional ‘hot spots’ as needed and contracted services for teacher professional development.”
NPS had originally discussed iPads.
“I think digital learning is going to change a lot over the next couple of years.” Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi said Monday to the BET, in its virtual meeting. “One of the things we realized with this is that it’s not only important to make sure that the student has a device that makes sense, but it’s a device that the parent can use with the student.”
A tablet would need a keyboard and it turned out that the 3190s are less expensive and easier to manage, he said. Many teachers have desktop computers and as part of the “next normal,” they need laptops that “can move with them.”
The additional electronics will eliminate the need for NPS to print learning packets for the young students and mail them to families, Meyer-Mitchell said.
“You have to tailor your programming to the students that you have in your class. And that’s very difficult to do with a packet that’s produced centrally at Central Office and mailed to families,” she said.
Plus, the packets have arrived late and students have missed days, Meyer-Mitchell said. The electronics allow for apps that promote learning.
“We know that if a child isn’t reading and writing by third grade, they’re unlikely to excel in their career, because that’s when you flip from learning to read, to reading to learn,” she said. “We need our children to be like sponges in love with learning and this is a tool that allows that to happen.”
“We’re also planning for the possibility and the likelihood, really, of a really very different learning environment, perhaps through all of next school year or at least part of next school year,” Hamilton said.
There may still be a need for social distancing so NPS may need to develop a “hybrid model” for education, perhaps “fewer students in the school at any one time than we are accustomed to,” Hamilton said. “In other words, we may not be able to put 24 students in a classroom, we may be able to, may only be able to put 10 or 12 students in a classroom.”
This would mean a mix of distance learning and on-site learning.
Given the fears that the coronavirus will resurge, it’s also possible that NPS would have to return to distance learning, entirely, he said.
The BET unanimously approved the expenditures. Rilling was not present.
BET Chairman Ed Camacho read a letter from Rilling.
“This is a good investment since we do not know what the future holds and how COVID-19 will continue to impact Norwalk,” Rilling said through Camacho. “There is a real possibility schools could be closed for extended periods of time again, while much of the future is unknown we do know that our young people are the next generation of leaders. It is incumbent on us to make sure they have the tools or resources they need.”
This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. to include a comment from Board of Education Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell, and at 5:34 p.m. to include one from BoE Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux.