JACKSON — Mississippi schools are closer to overcoming the digital divide that quickly became evident at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said Monday.
The state Department of Education has delivered about 325,000 laptop computers or tablets to public schools in recent weeks. The devices were purchased with part of the coronavirus relief money that Mississippi received from the federal government.
Mississippi school districts had the option to buy laptops or tablets on their own, or to be part of a bulk purchasing program through the state. Most opted to be part of the bulk program, and that is how the 325,000 devices were bought. Another 65,000 devices were purchased separately.
Wright said Monday that bulk purchasing “put us at the front of the line” as school districts across the United States are trying to buy computers for students and teachers. The high demand has caused long waiting times in many places.
“Nationally, there’s no other state that procured what we procured, and we did it because we were able to do that in one fell swoop,” Wright said.
She was speaking during an online forum hosted by Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps.
Gov. Tate Reeves ordered Mississippi schools to stop providing in-person instruction during the spring as the coronavirus began spreading in the state. As schools moved to online lessons for the final weeks of the 2019-20 academic year, “it became very evident very quickly, children that had connectivity and children that did not,” Wright said Monday.
Some Mississippi schools have continued online-only instruction during the fall semester, while many have offered in-person classes or a mix of in-person and online.
State legislators allocated part of the federal coronavirus relief money to expand internet access, particularly in rural areas. School districts were able to decide how to spend their share of the money. Some have offered wifi hotspots and others have wanted to put up towers to improve cellphone service, Wright said.
The laptops and tablets that arrived through the bulk purchasing program were loaded with all the software they need, and a protective case was put on each device.
“When the districts received those devices, all they had to do was take it out of the box, and it was ready to roll,” Wright said.
Wright said about 80 or 90 people are working on a professional development team to provide training for teachers, school staff and parents about how to use laptops and tablets.
“We heard loud and clear from families,” Wright said. “They were struggling. They didn’t know how to access a Zoom meeting. They didn’t know what Google Classroom meant.”
Wright said the state Department of Education will also hire digital learning coaches to help teachers and students.