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New CoSN Report Advises How to Make 1:1 Programs Sustainable

With post-pandemic education relief funding programs drawing to a close, the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking has advice for K-12 schools on careful shopping, additional funding and maintenance practices.

Student   Laptops.jpeg
By March 2021, the vast majority of K-12 schools had provided a laptop or tablet to every student. This industry standard, known as 1:1, was funded in part by the federal government.

With post-pandemic grants on track to run out next year, coupled with inflation and declining enrollment in districts across the country, school leaders are struggling with the unexpected costs of preserving the 1:1 promise. Districts can avoid the “fiscal cliff” if they shop for tools more carefully, look for additional funding sources, and find creative ways to save money on maintenance, repairs and upgrades, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) advised in its report this week on sustainability.

The report, Navigating Student Device 1:1 Sustainability: Challenges and Solutions in a Post-Pandemic Landscape, gathered information from six current or former school district chief information officers or chief technology officers, one regional education service agency director, and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Instructional Technology. It’s available for free on the organization’s website.

“It really has to do with intention and long-range strategic planning,” CoSN Chair Diane Doersch said in an interview Friday. “The total cost of ownership has to be looked at upfront.”

While establishing an inventory management system for maintenance schedules, repair funds and replacements may seem like a daunting task, districts can start by looking at the hidden costs, such as chargers and protective cases for laptops, the report said. It’s also important to be aware of both the lifespan of devices as well as the “end-of-service life (EOSL),” which pertains to all maintenance and support covered by warranties. Using equipment past that date carries the risk of higher maintenance costs, a lack of available replacement parts and security vulnerabilities.

Districts should also consider shifting device purchase and management costs from a capital expense to an operational expense and do business with vendors who offer flexible “pay-as-you-go" models. Doersch likened that arrangement to the evolution of office equipment, where instead of wasting so much money on copiers, printers and ink toner that remained stockpiled long after its compatible devices were gone, companies entered into leasing arrangements where a vendor provided whatever equipment and services that were needed. Schools can enter into similar leasing or subscription arrangements with vendors, some of which allow laptops to be sold at low costs or given to students after they graduate from high school.

Depending on the district's size and staffing levels, school leaders traditionally had to decide between repairing devices in house or hiring a contractor. Districts should consider establishing student “tech teams” to help with some of the repairs and maintenance tasks, the report said, and might also find substantial savings in a hybrid model where the work is shared between school employees, outsourced professionals and student helpers.

“Engaging students in the technology repair process not only saves labor costs,” the report said, “but also offers educational benefits like college credits and certifications.”

School leaders also need to look for federal funding sources beyond the Elementary and Secondary Schools Education Relief (ESSER) program, which expires in September. The U.S. Department of Education, Federal Communications Commission and the federal Affordable Connectivity Program have grants to cover 1:1 digital programs, the report said. CoSN provided guidance on sustainability three years ago as ESSER grants were handed out with the hope that district leaders would remain aware that the funding source would be exhausted in three years. Those guidelines were updated in this recent report.

The report further advises that districts can save money by purchasing replacement parts in bulk from wholesalers and reselling devices before they become obsolete. Selling laptops that are three to four years old can result in up to 25 percent savings toward the cost of new ones, Don Ringelstein, executive director of technology at Yorkville Community Unit School District, said in the report.

“You should not be paying anybody to recycle,” he said. “You should be getting money from devices your district is no longer using.”

Kelly May-Vollmer, superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District in California and a CoSN board member, leads a community of 27,000 students and 34 schools. After years of “digging out Cheetos” from laptop charging ports and replacing computer screens that were extended well past their usefulness, she worked with other school leaders to change the culture of student responsibility. Seventh graders are given new Chromebooks to use year-round until they graduate from high school, and a high school journalism class produced a video demonstrating proper handling, maintenance and acceptable use of devices that is shared with all grade levels.

“After we brought their voices in, there was more buy-in. They decreased breakages exponentially because they take ownership in the process,” May-Vollmer said in an interview Friday. “The reality is, kids will listen to kids more than they’ll listen to me.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.