The Falmouth Education Foundation has given the town’s schools a $125,000 grant that will allow the district’s youngest students to use remote-learning tools during the coronavirus pandemic.
The funds will provide Chromebooks, mobile WiFi hotspot devices and computer mice for every student from kindergarten to grade 2.
It is the foundation’s largest single gift to the school district.
Superintendent Lori S. Duerr announced the gift during the Falmouth School Committee’s remote-access meeting on Tuesday, April 14.
“This grant is an addition to the teacher grants that are awarded for the next school year,” Dr. Duerr said. “This is just a huge support to our district, and so many thanks to our amazing FEF partner and the many FEF donors who gave even more during this unprecedented time to be able to fund the need for our district.”
District administrators have been concerned that kindergarten to 2nd grade teachers have had limited contact with their students during the remote-learning period, the superintendent said.
In grades 3 to 12, the district has loaned each student a Chromebook for schoolwork and provided a mouse and WiFi hotspot when needed.
“Working with paper packets is difficult for teachers to follow up on and to be able to assess how the students are progressing,” she said. “We understand the 2nd grade teachers and students will have a little easier time adjusting to working remotely on Chromebooks, since they’ve been using them since the beginning of the school year, and we know that there will be a learning curve for kindergarten and 1st grade students.”
With “the likely extended closure” of school buildings beyond the first week of May, however, Dr. Duerr said “it seems imperative that all of our students have access to online programs and access to their teachers so that teachers can track the students’ progress.”
The Chromebooks will allow students to participate in morning meetings and in classroom activities and interactions that Dr. Duerr said “are so critical at these young ages.”
“This action is to improve remote-learning opportunities during the school closure only. We have no intention that once we return to school that students K to 4 [in kindergarten to grade 4] will continue to carry their Chromebooks to and from school as the 5th through 12th grade students do, but they will have them available at school to continue working with online material,” she said.
The district, which expects to receive 500 Chromebooks by the last week of this month, will be prepared right away for all students to work online should there be future school closures, she added.
Administrators have also ordered the mice and secured 20 additional hotspots for families without internet access and who do not qualify for the free Comcast Internet Essentials plan.
The district is setting up a delivery and pickup system for families at a date to be announced, Dr. Duerr said.
Foundation board president Ellen Barol, along with foundation member Janet B. Totten, said that as it became clear that social isolation would be long term, the foundation board approached the superintendent to ask how they might assist, outside of the normal grant pathways, to meet the challenges of the shutdown.
Dr. Duerr told them she was most concerned about the effect of prolonged remote learning in the early grades, and filling the digital technology need would cost about $125,000, Ms. Barol said.
“The FEF board had two long Zoom meetings to discuss how we would respond. We already had more than $100,000 in new grant proposals for the 2020-21 academic year, and we didn’t want to jeopardize their funding. That meant that providing the $125,000 would require us to call on the contingency fund we’d built over many years, money reserved for an emergency. Discussion was lively, prudent and thoughtful. In the end, the vote was to provide the $125,000. This is a crisis. It is precisely the unforeseeable emergency we had been saving for,” she said.
But that is not the end of the story, Ms. Barol said.
“FEF has been very lucky to have two anonymous donors who have funded selected projects since 2011. They stepped up in this crisis, deciding that instead of selecting individual projects next year, they would be our partner contributors in this large gift,” she said. “In their words, ‘What really induced us to make this contribution was the fact that the board had already decided to fund the $125,000 emergency request, to deplete FEF’s reserves, to take a leap of faith into the unknown, all to benefit Falmouth’s youngest students’.”