‘Inexcusable’ technology inequity will be focus of MCPS budget, superintendent says

‘Inexcusable’ technology inequity will be focus of MCPS budget, superintendent says

Money also needed for supplemental learning, professional development

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The coronavirus pandemic is laying bare longstanding inequities in access to technology, and addressing the problem will have an impact on the Montgomery County Public Schools budget, Superintendent Jack Smith said Thursday.

Comparing the importance of technology to providing textbooks to students, Smith said he expects MCPS will need to allocate at least $20 million to “make sure we have a system that doesn’t require the heroics of so many people” to ensure students have laptops and the internet to complete remote learning. He called existing inequities “inexcusable.”

Since schools closed in mid-March, MCPS has loaned more than 55,000 Chromebooks to students who didn’t have devices at home.

State and federal health officials have cautioned that schools could remain closed in the fall or, if schools reopen, there could be a need for hybrid schedules of in-person and remote learning.

“In the year 2000, we sent home textbooks for every student. We never would have sent home six textbooks that were brand new with one student and another with six that were used and falling apart and another student with none or a half of a book,” Smith said. “Digitally, that’s precisely what we’ve been doing for the past 15 years, sending home very uneven resources, and knowing students are going home to uneven resources.”

The pandemic will also force MCPS to allocate more money to professional development and to provide supplemental learning — like summer and Saturday school — to students who experience learning loss or fall behind during this academic year’s remote learning.

For supplemental learning opportunities, which could happen in person or online, Smith said he anticipates the school district needing at least $40 million. Professional development, to help educators learn how to effectively teach in person, online and if there is a mix of in-person and remote learning in the fall, carries a price tag of roughly $25 million, Smith said.

“If they gave me one thing to do differently, over the past four years, I’d have done one digital learning day each week,” Smith said.
Funding for each category will need to be pulled from other areas of the budget, as the county government has proposed funding the MCPS budget at a “maintenance-of-effort” level due to financial constraints caused by the pandemic.

Maintenance of effort legally requires governments to provide per-pupil funding that is at least as much as what was provided in the prior fiscal year.

In February, before the local coronavirus pandemic began, MCPS proposed a roughly $2.8 billion budget for approval to the council, about a $123 million increase from the current budget and $43 million over maintenance of effort.

It was not clear on Thursday which budget categories the school district would draw from for coronavirus-related expenditures.

Smith said MCPS plans to save about $1 million from the current budget on bus operations because students stayed home to learn, but there is no expected savings in building maintenance because staff members have been catching up on backlogged requests and working ahead on summer projects.

The school system intends to continue meal services as long as schools are closed and through the summer, Smith said. MCPS usually provides lunches for students in the summer, but the school district is hopeful it will receive permission from federal officials to continue to provide breakfast, dinner and snacks, as well.

The County Council is expected to discuss the MCPS budget again later this month.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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