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CPS to buy new computers for students to use at home, ramp up e-learning during coronavirus shutdown

Creating a comprehensive e-learning plan is becoming increasingly important as students appear to be headed for a lengthy stay at home

A student works on a laptop computer.
CPS is seeking to close the digital divide between schools by buying more computers for students.
AP file

Chicago Public Schools officials said Wednesday they’re planning to buy new computers for students and are on the verge of releasing a more comprehensive remote learning plan as they continue preparing for extended school closures.

Up to this point, the district’s 640 schools have continued teaching in vastly different ways, though the majority are providing enrichment assignments instead of forging ahead with normal instruction.

Schools chief Janice Jackson has said the infrastructure doesn’t exist for a widespread e-learning plan to apply at all schools, mainly because of technology deficiencies such as a lack of computer or internet access among students.

But figuring out a way to ramp up e-learning is becoming increasingly important as the district’s 350,000 students, who have already been out of school more than a week, appear to be headed for a lengthy stay at home. Though CPS is currently set to stay closed until April 21, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker has mandated all state schools closed through at least April 7, several other states have already canceled the rest of their school year.

CPS’ chief education officer LaTanya McDade said at Wednesday’s monthly Board of Education meeting that the focus moving forward will be on closing the equity and technology gap between the district’s rich and poor schools.

“We recognize that being away from the classroom has an even bigger impact on our highest-needs students, and we are committed to doing whatever we can to help bridge the digital divide for our families,” McDade said.

Jackson said CPS has started purchasing electronic devices such as laptops for the students — and even teachers — who don’t have them, but acknowledged competition from districts across the country who are looking for the same resources has created a backlog of devices.

Board member Lucino Sotelo thanked CPS officials for their work on the issue, but said a problem that has existed for decades can’t be solved overnight.

“The demand for the digital divide is far greater than what we have resources,” Sotelo said. “We’re not going to address the total digital divide in weeks. There’s a reason why we had a five-year plan.”

Board OKs $75 million budget for COVID-19 response

CPS will pay for the new devices using some of the $75 million that the school board approved Wednesday for the district’s coronavirus emergency response through at least the end of June.

CPS administrators got the OK to spend the money through a unanimous vote from the board, giving the district the ability to use the money without prior board approval or immediate public notice.

“Authorizing $75 million does not mean we are going to spend $75 million,” board president Miguel del Valle said ahead of the vote. “It could be far less than that. It could be somewhere in the middle.”

For the first time ever, the board meeting was held virtually through video-conferencing and live-streamed on YouTube, with at one point more than 1,200 people watching remotely.