Starting with the 2020-21 school year, all middle school and high school students in Orange County will be assigned their own personal laptop computers.

Middle-schoolers will pick up their laptops at the beginning of the school day and return them when they leave. Students at Orange County High School will be allowed to take the computers home throughout the school year, and the lightweight machines, running the Chrome operating system and commonly called Chromebooks, will be theirs to keep when they graduate.

During a recent school board meeting, board members expressed enthusiasm for the plan presented by Mark Outten, director of technology for the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). They agreed they didn’t need to sign off on the project, which will make use of many laptops the school system already owns.

Outten said middle and high school classrooms already are equipped with carts filled with laptops—too many, in fact: “We have more Chromebooks now than students.”

The new system in Orange County will allow for a more consistent and predictable replacement schedule for computers that have reached the end of their lifespan, Outten told the school board, noting that a Chromebook typically lasts three to four years.

He said he plans to negotiate a contract for the purchase of new Chromebooks and expects the price to the school division to be less than $200 for each machine. A case, license and warranty will add about $50 to the cost of each laptop.

Although it may sound straightforward, Outten allowed that assigning a laptop to each middle and high school student will be “a huge undertaking.”

He said later that the school division currently owns more than 4,000 laptops for students in grades two through 12. Although details are still being worked out, he expects that each year, under the new plan, OCPS will purchase new laptops for students in second or third grade, sixth grade and ninth grade. That would amount to buying about 1,150 new Chromebooks each year.

If students misuse their computers, their privileges can be revoked, he said. “But it’s important that the computer is seen as part of the learning now and not an extra or add-on. Students will need the computer for their work, so we will be making sure to do everything we can to work with students who may struggle with taking care of their device.”

In offering students greater access to laptops, Outten said the Orange County schools are joining other divisions in Virginia moving in the same direction: “I would venture to say more divisions than not are doing this now.”

For those who wonder whether students will be glued to their computers all day long, OCPS Director of Secondary Education Renee Honaker said, “There is a balance of work completed on devices and by hand. The laptops are used for gathering information, collaboration and sharing what they've learned. Of course, writing assignments at the secondary level are often completed on devices.”

“The Chromebook speaks to equity”

District 5 board member Jim Hopkins observed during the meeting that teachers will need time and support as they shift from books to the computer in their instructional methods.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Cecil Snead told the board that help will be available to teachers who need assistance mastering Google Classroom, an online platform that many OCPS teachers already use.

“The Google Chromebook actually speaks to equity,” Snead said, since the school division has been able to purchase enough laptops for all the students in middle school and high school.

The next step, he said, has been figuring out how to make the best use of the equipment. He and his staff decided that giving students greater access was the way to go.

He continued, “It’s developmentally appropriate, I think, for the students in the middle schools to get used to them, to carry them around, and it’s certainly developmentally appropriate, in most cases, for the high school students to carry them home.”

Outten had a ready answer to a question about students who live in areas currently lacking internet service. Given the county’s ongoing efforts to expand internet access—a project jumpstarted by the school division’s federally funded broadband initiative—he said he expects internet access to increase. He noted that the laptops will be programmed so students can work on school projects offline.

Commenting after the meeting, board chair Sherrie Page said she is not worried that students will use the computers to visit inappropriate websites, because internet filters are in place.

On that topic, Outten explained later, “The internet filter will follow students home to prevent as much bad stuff on the internet as possible from getting to them. We use a product during the school day that will be configured to block content at home.”

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