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The education department distributed 321K iPads to NYC students for remote learning. Now principals have to get them back.

City officials say school leaders wanted control over devices. But principals say they are concerned about their budgets.

NYC DOE iPad
An iPad distributed by the New York City Department of Education.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When school buildings closed down in the spring, the education department’s central office raced to purchase and deliver hundreds of thousands of iPads with built-in internet access. The massive task took months to carry out, and as of last week, some 321,500 internet-enabled iPads reached students’ hands, officials said.

Now the job of collecting all of those devices and redistributing them will be up to individual schools — a shift that principals requested, according to the education department. But so will the job of ordering and paying for any new devices, and some principals, as well as their union, are not happy about having to shoulder those costs.

Some are concerned the bills for devices could be a burden as they begin the year with smaller budgets and a hiring freeze amid a pandemic-fueled financial crisis.

“The [education department], while giving us autonomy, is passing the financial buck to the schools,” said one principal who asked to remain anonymous in fear of retribution. “I worry about that.”

Schools have long been responsible for purchasing devices. But as remote learning started, the education department took over, spending $269 million on 300,000 iPads with internet plans, or roughly $897 per device, officials said in April. They ended up purchasing and distributing about 21,000 more than that, and have an additional 30,000 iPads left over. The department will give those to schools that cannot afford to buy new ones, officials said.

The department did not have an estimate of how many new devices might be needed or how this shift will impact different schools, but the burden of buying new devices could fall disproportionately on high poverty schools where the needs for devices are greater.

(Officials declined to say what will happen if the 30,000-surplus runs out, except that the department’s response will “depend” on each school’s situation.)

The iPads handed out last school year follow the student. For example, a fifth grader who received a device in the spring will return that device to their new middle school instead of their former elementary school. Graduating seniors are currently in the process of returning their devices, education department officials said. Then there are incoming kindergarteners and other students new to the system.

After schools collect any iPads that their students received over the spring, along with their own inventories of laptops and tablets, staff will redistribute the devices based on who still needs internet access and who can get by with a regular computer.

Also, principals anticipate that students’ devices could break. Existing iPads are covered by a 3-year warranty that covers issues such as battery replacement or accidental damage, department officials said, meaning schools will not have to take on those costs but will be responsible for requesting the repair.

Apart from the department’s central budget, principals manage their own budgets that pay for school-level costs, such as staff, various services for students, and supplies. They have long been in charge of purchasing devices for their students, such as laptops and tablets. In fact, individual schools distributed about 175,000 laptops and tablets — without built-in internet — to their students as educators raced to prepare for virtual school.

But as the coronavirus forced students to learn remotely in March, the education department took over the task of distributing — and paying for — devices that included internet. With an estimated 300,000 students needing internet-enabled devices, it took the education department weeks to purchase and deliver them. Some frustrated families went long stretches of time before seeing their requests fulfilled, forcing them to rely on printed packets their schools managed to send students or to use cell phones to complete classwork.

The need for the internet-ready iPads grew as the school year progressed, and principals believe they might see an uptick in requests this fall. Some families soon realized they could not manage sharing one device among multiple family members. Others struggled to find reliable or affordable internet. The department said it is advocating for internet companies to extend free or reduced-price deals for the fall.

Returning the responsibility of requesting and distributing devices at the school level would make some things easier, such as technical support, some principals told Chalkbeat. For example, if families come to pick up their order at the school, staff can show parents or students how to use the device and the apps needed for remote learning, such as Google Classroom, they said. This sort of support became extremely complicated to offer from afar in the spring since devices were sent directly to homes. Often, families were confused about how to order devices in the first place. And generally, principals said, they understand their students’ needs best.

But budgeting could become tricky.

Come fall, one principal said she’ll likely redistribute her devices based on age group. Her older elementary school students need laptops since they type more than those in K-2, who would do fine with tablets. She could simply have students trade devices, but this may also require the purchase of more laptops.

This principal also has 50 new students on her roster, meaning she may need more devices based on what their needs are. Her school has some money to cover these potential costs, but she noted that other schools may not have funds at all because of overall cuts to school budgets.

“While [the central] system will help if we don’t have the money, then we wind up having to make a case for why we don’t have money,” said the principal, who also asked to remain anonymous in fear of retribution.

Shifting this cost to schools is misguided right now, the principals union contended.

“School budgets have already been greatly impacted across the city,” said Henry Rubio, executive vice president of the union that represents principals and administrators, in a statement, when asked about the plan. “The [education department] should take on these costs so that school leaders can use their limited funds to provide students with the supports they need.”

A department spokesperson said the shift from centrally controlling device distribution was based on feedback from school administrators.

“We heard loud and clear from school leaders that they need the flexibility restored to buy devices based on their school’s needs, and we are reverting back to this long-standing school policy and practice,” a department spokesperson said.

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