Schools face a funding crunch — and rising technology costs

SAN FRANCISCO — The public schools in Oakland, California, are still figuring out what their plans will look like for restarting classes this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, but they know this much: they’re expecting to have to pay more for technology, either for distance-learning or costs associated with the reopenings themselves.

“If we did not have technology, across the board — for classroom learning, district operations, staff connecting with each other — we wouldn’t really be able to do much of anything,” Susan Beltz, chief technology officer for the Oakland Unified School District, said.

That is putting a new twist on budget debates in schools across the country, where school boards and administrators are facing a financial squeeze but also expect to spend more for technology upgrades and services due to the outbreak.

School districts across the country are taking a hard look at their budgets. Some are laying off teachers or other staff. But technology costs are harder to trim than they used to be, and one contract seems to beget another: software fees, laptop expenses, internet service, broadband infrastructure and other tech purchases that have become newly essential.Schools in Broward County, Florida, now even have their own virtual call center for tech support.

“Normally in a recession, we would say technology will be cut first. Most people are saying that won’t be true this time,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University.

Image: TOPSHOT-US-HEALTH-VIRUS-TEACHER (Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images file)
Image: TOPSHOT-US-HEALTH-VIRUS-TEACHER (Olivier Douliery / AFP – Getty Images file)

“If it’s a technology like Zoom that’s allowing you to do online classes and keep education going, that’s probably not going to get cut,” she said.

Roza said it’s been difficult for many schools to plan their budgets for the upcoming year. Most produced their budgets around February, before COVID-19 upended the world, and it’s possible that without additional aid from states or the federal government, the cuts are just beginning.

Technology is just a small piece of what schools need to think through and pay for as the nation barrels toward the fall. Districts are thinking through how they will pay for costly new cleaning procedures, health screenings and other safety measures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release additional guidance next week.

But education technology is booming as a business. Last year, even before the pandemic further shifted learning online, investment in ed tech companies reached a record $1.66 billion, according to the education-focused news site EdSurge.

“What we have seen is a huge number of companies who have seen the crisis as an opportunity to get the tool they created into the hands of teachers and parents,” said Richard Culatta, chief executive of the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit. He said he heard from one superintendent who felt they were being “bombarded” by pitches.

Technology was already becoming an increasing part of every corner of schools. There are software applications not only for videoconferencing and back-end office organization but also for curriculum materials, tracking how engaged students are, promoting wellness for students and staff, and even to help distribute food. And learning software has grown more sophisticated.

“There are tools that are way more valuable and way more effective than what many people have in their minds when they think of online learning. They think of those ‘click next’ things,” Culatta said.

The move online carries additional, less obvious costs, too — such as training time and support staff positions.

Phillip Dunn, the chief information officer for Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, said that after the pandemic began, the district went so far as to launch a virtual call center to answer tech questions. It contracted with the software firm Avaya to handle as many as 150 calls at a time.

Broward, the country’s sixth-largest school district, launched other software systems to analyze data and track student engagement, he said.

“It was literally like we started three companies in a matter of weeks,” Dunn said.

Software licensing fees run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for some services, he said. (The national average starting salary for a teacher is around $40,000, according to the National Education Association, which represents teachers.) The biggest expense for Broward, though, was still laptops: $25 million for 100,000 devices.

Image: Teacher Instructs Remotely From Empty Classroom (Andy Lyons / Getty Images file)
Image: Teacher Instructs Remotely From Empty Classroom (Andy Lyons / Getty Images file)

Some districts may buy digital cameras in bulk. If schools adopt a hybrid attendance model, with a fraction of students physically present on any given day, then classrooms may need better cameras to broadcast lessons to students who are home.

“There are a number of vendors trying to reach out to schools with solutions that they know will have to be in place in the fall,” Dunn said. He said he’s heard from camera makers, as well as salespeople for thermal body temperature scanners, a technology that experts say remains unproven.

Many vendors — more than 900, according to one database — have been offering services at a discount or for free. “We understand that they may have budget pressures,” said Hardeep Gulati, CEO of PowerSchool, which makes data analysis tools and other software for schools.

But the coronavirus pandemic also presents something like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a foothold in districts where a company wants to become a recurring vendor.

“A lot of them gave really big deals because of the coronavirus, and I think the question is, will districts assume they get these prices in the future?” Georgetown’s Roza said.

School officials said they’re not counting on discounts to continue for long, and in some cases are seeing a return to standard pricing. But teachers and students are using the technology, and may need it for the foreseeable future.

“Obviously, once you adopt something, if teachers feel that it’s effective in providing instruction to students, they’re going to want to continue with it,” Oakland’s Beltz said.

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