OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – On Thursday, schools in the Osceola County Public School system will begin loaning out laptops to parents whose students are in need of one to participate in distance digital learning. But the school Superintendent confirms they have a limited amount of laptops and WiFi hotpots to go around, and don't have enough to service the district's 6,900 students.
That’s why families who do have access to a computer, tablet, or smartphone are being urged to use that instead.
"Children are not required to be on the computer all day," said Osceola County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Pace. "So it will be okay for students to work in shifts. Two and a half to three hours here, 2 1/2 to 3 hours with this one - if that's possible."
During a Wednesday morning news conference, Dr. Pace confirmed high school students are being given priority with the laptop checkouts, as long as their parents signed up to check one out in advanced. According to the school website, signups ended Wednesday afternoon. Any computers leftover will be loaned to students who need it in lower grades. Pace says some middle and elementary school students will be able to use paper packets instead of digital learning.
Pickups at the high schools are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. starting Thursday March 26. Remaining devices will be available to elementary and middle school students in need at each child’s school beginning on Friday March 27 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
For those who will be checking out a school computer, Pace says the lesson plans and access will be individualized for each student.
"We are imaging them per child so that we can put the safety mechanisms and security in place to allow them to access the curriculum," said Pace. " But all our digital information learning information and tools and links will be available from home on any device through our district website."
Pace says each student is being asked to complete one task each day. Those taking part in paper learning will have their packets assessed when they return to school.
Pace confirmed accommodations would also be made for special needs students.
On Wednesday morning, workers with Osceola County Public schools were still busy getting the last batch of computers ready to roll out to students and parents. This while teachers were still being trained on the new digital learning protocols.
Cat Williams is one of the parents who signed up for a school-issued computer. She says her son is a junior at Tohopekaliga High School and says she’ll be at the school early Thursday morning to claim one since they don’t have a computer at home. She’s thankful the district is offering this service so he can continue learning.
"I'm grateful yes," said Williams "We're just going to do the computer thing and he'll do it from home."
So what will this new style of digital learning look like on the laptops? Pace says that depends on each individual teacher.
"They can do recordings and send those to the students," said Pace "They can do webinars and send those to the students. They can engage through the platform back and forth with digital conversations, blogs, those sorts of things. We have some that are doing live video lessons. But again the kids would have the flexibility of logging in at their own leisure because those would be recorded."
The Superintendent says while the first day of in-class learning is scheduled for April 15, they are prepared to continue digital learning if the need for social distancing to combat the spread of COVID-19 continues.
"We're prepared to extend it as long as we need to, but remain hopeful we will be able to get our teachers and students back to a more traditional style of learning," said Pace. "I think we've learned some things through this process. About maybe some flexibility with testing and assessment that isn't as fundamental as we thought for a long time."
Osceola County School Board Chairman Kelvin Soto says he doubts students and teachers will be back in school by April 15 and predicts distance learning will extend to the end of the school year.
"If what we are trying to accomplish here is the whole flattening the curve, prevent these transmissions, this disease, the efforts have to extend past April 15th," said Soto.
But he confirmed right now no decisions have been made to extend online learning. Soto also says no decisions have been made on what to do with things like prom and graduation.
For now the entire school district is just watching and waiting for guidance from county and state leaders. But Pace says they are prepared to extend digital learning for as long as necessary.
“People are positive,” said Pace. “They’re willing to try something new and different. Even though we know its challenging, we know it’s scary because its new people are committed to doing the right thing for kids.”