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COVID-19 Forces the Question: Should the Youngest Learners Have Devices?
Miriam Amacker, a 4th grader at Sunnyside Elementary School in San Francisco, uses a laptop to do schoolwork at home. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Months before the coronavirus upended everyday life, a rural district in central Minnesota started giving Chromebooks to all of its high school students.

It was the first time that devices owned by the Brainerd Public Schools were assigned to students to carry throughout the day and to take home, representing the next step in the evolution of its 1-to-1 laptop program. The district already offered classroom devices for every student in grades 5-8.

In its elementary schools, however, devices were far less available: a couple of iPads or Chromebooks in each class. At the time in the fall, 1-to-1 computing in grades K-4 was still an idea being researched.

And then, the COVID-19 outbreak hit this spring, almost instantly moving the Brainerd schools and nearly every other district in the country into full-time remote learning. In that environment, the issue of devices for elementary students suddenly required immediate attention, leading to the purchase of 1,000 new devices in mid-March, giving the district a ratio of one for every two elementary students. But the district decided to stop short of purchasing enough devices to create 1-to-1 environments in elementary schools.

"We decided putting all that money into 1-to-1 for K-4 didn't make a whole lot of sense," said Sarah Porisch, the director of technology for the 6,700-student district. "Our teachers and principals at the elementary level did not see us being 1-to-1 after distance learning."

What About Screen Time, Hands-On Learning?

The coronavirus school building closures that swept the country this spring and led to purchases of new laptops and tablets for remote learning have also forced districts to make tough decisions now-instead of years down the road-about 1-to-1 computing programs for their youngest learners.

While the concept of providing a laptop for every student has gained steam in the last decade, it has resonated much stronger with middle and high schools, where students can work longer unsupervised and the curriculum can be geared to revolve around more digital assignments.

As it is, 44 percent of elementary teachers report their schools are equipping each student with a device, according to a nationally representative survey of teachers from early May by the EdWeek Research Center. In comparison, about 70 percent of middle and high school teachers said their schools had adopted 1-to-1 programs.

Putting devices in the hands of elementary students, sometimes as early as kindergarten, remains a somewhat unsettled approach. Although intended to boost students' tech skills and empower more creative work, education experts worry about too much screen time at a young age. Some worry that too much device use can affect brain development and take away from more age appropriate hands-on teaching approaches. There's also a financial element-is it really the best use of limited district dollars?

This spring's national remote learning experiment, and the lingering uncertainty of what instruction will look like next year-in particular if coronavirus ravages the country again-have changed some perceptions, however.

Experts who viewed 1-to-1 programs at elementary schools as optional now say it's worth another look because of the need to keep students and teachers connected during distance learning.

Elizabeth Keren-Kolb, a clinical associate professor of education technology at the University of Michigan, said that in the past elementary schools have been "all over the place" when it comes to device strategy. Having one device for every two or three students was fine, she said, because learning at elementary school grades is dependent on social interaction and face-to-face instruction.

But Keren-Kolb, who is currently surveying K-12 teachers, parents, and students about their experiences with remote learning, said having younger students and their families become more familiar with how to use devices beforehand would have helped when districts rushed to adopt distance learning.

She's experienced it in her own home. Keren-Kolb said her 2nd grade son used an iPad in class and a mobile app called Seesaw but only to send pictures home-and that was the extent of tech usage. Now, he's being asked to complete classwork on the device and app without prior instruction "and it's a frustrating thing for him."

"If you talk to K-2 teachers they will say how difficult it has been for students to navigate the tools, many tools, they've never used before," she said. "Pre-COVID, I would have said elementary schools don't need to be 1-to-1 because you need social interaction. But post-COVID, I've recognized that not being able to take devices home to work with caregivers, there is a disconnect between school and their everyday lives."

'Not a Perfect World'

GG Weisenfeld, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said most early childhood experts agree there are better ways for districts to spend money than on devices for young learners, in particular preschoolers.

But "right now, it's not a perfect world," she said.

"There is a need to have some contact with your school or teacher and your peers and having a device is necessary to do that right now," said Weisenfeld, noting that device usage in these situations "needs to be limited, supervised, and carefully constructed."

In northeastern West Virginia, close to the Maryland border, Gayle Allen's kindergartners at Springfield-Green Spring Elementary School used iPads daily for anywhere between 30 to 45 minutes when classes were held in a brick-and-mortar setting.

Several different apps allowed students to do things like listen to stories, learn the basics of coding, draw or record their voices, and send messages home. But even when used in short spurts like a 30 minute-interval, it can be too long for some students and "their eyes start to glaze over," she said.

And when the devices were introduced to her class several years ago, they were met with an ice-cold reception from the veteran teacher and her students, said Allen, an educator with more than three decades of classroom experience. But now she said ed-tech vendors have improved the variety of digital content offered and her students are finding activities on the devices much more engaging.

"When we first went 1-to-1 with iPads, I remember making the kids get on them and they truly went 'Uhhh.' They wanted to go back to the blocks," she said. "Now, it's something they want to do. They like it."

Students get trained to use the devices at the beginning of the school year, and Allen said all the activities assigned through apps are either enrichment or to practice skills already taught-no brand new learning. The consistent exposure to the devices, along with using them in different ways, was particularly helpful when shifting to remote learning. Now, most of Allen's students depend on Seesaw to complete projects at home with little fuss.

"Once we switched to home learning, that was the app everybody was most familiar working on, so it was easy to do," she said of the transition to remote learning.

The problem was that 7 of her 19 students did not have access to a device or broadband at home. And the school's 1-to-1 program does not send devices homes with students, and will not even during COVID-19 school building closures.

David Wick, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said families are struggling in some cases to get access to devices and in a landscape where it remains unclear what learning will look like next school year. "It's certainly much more equitable to have the schools provide the devices for students," he said.

Wick said elementary schools don't typically send devices home because it's difficult for students at that age to take proper care of a piece of district-owned technology. And, he said, learning at that level generally doesn't flourish if it's done in an isolated environment.

But given that families in some cases are having to share devices among multiple siblings, "now we're getting to the point where it makes much more sense for kids in elementary to have one of their own," he said.

"It's very difficult not to have 1-to-1 when there's such high needs of student accessibility at this time," Wick said.

'This Is a Huge Lesson in Equity'

Sharing devices with siblings has become part of the normal procedure for some during remote learning. In fact, 44 percent of teachers and district leaders report that the majority of their students are sharing devices with family members, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey.

That was also one of the reasons driving Maureen Brummett, superintendent of Newington Public Schools in Connecticut, to move elementary schools in her district to 1-to-1 status in time for the next school year.

Brummett said her district of 4,000 students currently offers one device for each student in grades 3-12. But because of COVID-19 closures "we're putting forward a faster deployment right now down to grade K," she said. Even prekindergarten students will have access to devices, but they won't be going home. If remote learning becomes the standard again in the fall, Brummett said she's open to the idea of letting the pre-K devices go home but it won't be the default option and would require discussion with teachers.

Deploying devices for elementary students during spring coronavirus closures was made difficult because district laptops for those grades are currently hooked up to docking stations in classes and are missing individual chargers, Brummett said. The district had to search for spare computers and chargers or "jerry rig" Chromebooks to send home in some cases, she said.

The process drew blowback from parents.

"I can't tell you the complaints we got initially. We had parents saying 'I have three kids and one Chromebook.' We use the word equity a lot. If you don't have the devices and connectivity, you're at a disadvantage," she said. "This is a huge lesson in equity. It made us realize we need to get every child their own device. If I had any doubts in my mind prior to COVID, they're long gone."

At the Brainerd Public Schools, the rural district that opted to go with a one device for every two students at the elementary-school level instead of a full-blown 1-to-1 program, the decision was based on a bigger picture outlook than just the need to equip students with devices for school building shutdowns.

Porisch, the district's director of technology, said there's still a need to analyze more data about the impact personal devices have on the youngest learners. Plus, she said, the curriculum at that level is not based on technology, "so we did not want to spend the money to do 1-to-1 when it wasn't needed at this point."

"It would be a huge shift for our K-4 teachers, and before we make that shift we want to see what the research says about how students are impacted," she said. "We are trying to make decisions not just on the Band-Aid for right now, but how this improves our district overall."

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