Worcester school board plans to hold families accountable for Chromebooks distributed to students

WORCESTER — The school committee agreed on Thursday to consider adding Chromebooks issued by students in the district to an existing policy requiring students to take care of school property.

But most members were unwilling to draw up a special contract with parents holding them responsible for maintaining the $300 laptops, despite Superintendent Maureen Binienda’s fear that student damage to the devices will end up costing Worcester millions of dollars.

Replacing broken Chromebooks could cost the district $1 million a year, Binienda says, depending on how many devices have been damaged so far since Worcester launched a major laptop giveaway program. last year to facilitate remote learning during the pandemic.

Bob Walton, the district’s IT manager, told the committee’s standing committee on governance and employee issues at its meeting last week that about 500 to 600 of those broken devices may have been intentionally damaged, according to a report. of the meeting provided to the main school committee. for Thursday’s meeting.

“Principals tell you they’ll find a Chromebook in the high school bathroom,” Binienda said, or that many devices will just be left in the building.

Even though the district appears to be in good shape this year – another shipment of 3,000 laptops, more than enough to bring the district back to a 1 device to 1 student ratio, is expected as early as next week, according to officials – the superintendent said the current situation is unsustainable given the district’s normally tight finances.

“Those are 10 teachers we couldn’t hire because we’re spending $1 million on Chromebooks,” she said.

School committee member John Monfredo offered to hold families more responsible for the devices by creating a contract to enter into to receive a Chromebook. But some of his colleagues questioned whether that would be reasonable in Worcester, which has a large population of low-income families who are unlikely to be able to afford to replace broken appliances.

“If I were to pay for a $300 Chromebook, I don’t know where that money would come from,” said committee member Laura Clancey, who is also a parent in the school system.

Other members felt that it would be too difficult to distinguish between devices that have been intentionally damaged and those that have been broken through routine use.

“(Chromebooks) are extremely delicate – they’re not a solid tool,” said committee member Dianna Biancheria. “A bottle of water hits it, you don’t know if it’s going to work anymore.”

Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick, meanwhile, argued that it’s generally unfair to place the tax burden of a program on parents who have had no say in the matter.

“This committee chose to go 1 on 1,” she said. “It was not the choice of the families.”

Committee member Molly McCullough offered a potentially simpler solution for adding Chromebooks to an existing district policy that states “all books and equipment must be returned by the student (to their school) and in the state in which they were delivered”. The policy also states that the district reserves the right to collect payment for lost or damaged property awarded to the school.

The committee ultimately voted unanimously to consider McCullough’s suggested change to the policy.

The committee also voted 5-2, with Monfredo and Biancheria opposing, to approve a motion by Novick to distribute the school Chromebooks currently kept at the new South High School to other schools that need them.

Novick argued that the school is “hoarding the devices,” which are in addition to the Chromebooks students at South High already have at home, while some students in the district currently have no laptops.

Binienda, who opposed the idea, said these school laptops were specifically purchased for the new South High through the Massachusetts School Building Authority; however, and were intended for school use only, not home use like most district Chromebooks.

Committee chairman Mayor Joseph Petty, who voted in favor of the motion, said the measure would be moot anyway if the new district-ordered Chromebooks arrive next week.

The committee also agreed late Thursday to send the issue of how to develop a sustainable replacement program for school devices to its standing finance and operations committee for further discussion.