The St. Mary’s County commissioners at a meeting Tuesday asked St. Mary’s public schools’ superintendent a few questions about the laptops the school system wanted to purchase.
The public schools requested over $5 million from the county’s CARES Act relief fund to buy 5,000 laptops in an effort to give every student a computer. But the commissioners gave them less than $59,000.
During Tuesday’s budget work session, Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) was surprised to hear that the school system offered $400,000 from its own budget to help the commissioners make up for an estimated $1.8 million loss in revenue projected for next fiscal year.
Superintendent Scott Smith, who was present via teleconference, said “we haven’t found it quite yet.” He said they will be looking through the school system’s fuel, heating, oil and transportation costs because the prices are the lowest “we’ve seen them in quite a while.”
Smith said next Wednesday at a school board meeting they will have a detailed look of what is not in the budget. He added they have another $300,000 they need to cut because “our final numbers from the state came in and they are $300,000 less than they originally were presented in January.”
“The short response is ‘thank you.’ The long response is, ‘gosh, I thought you needed some computers,’” Hewitt said.
Smith said they are “not even close” to being one-to-one or providing laptops to every student in the school system. He added they have about 9,000 machines in all the school buildings and they will use over $2 million from the CARES Act education stabilization fund to purchase computers.
“We’re still going to need about $5 million worth of computers to get to one-to-one,” he said.
Commissioner President Randy Guy (R) asked if the computers were loaned to students. Smith said it would be an $8 million investment that includes 1,500 Wi-Fi hotspots and they would be handed out like textbooks, given out at the beginning of the year and returned at the end.
Commissioner Eric Colvin (R) asked the superintendent how other counties compare when it comes to computers for students.
Smith said a majority of Maryland counties, with the exception of some western districts, have one-to-one status or close to it. Calvert County’s third through eighth grade public school students have their own laptops, and Smith said Charles is still working to provide devices to all its students.
“The investment is it’s a great way to use one-time funds to get a step up. Everybody in the state recognizes that whatever education looks like come September, it will be reliant on supportability and some connectivity through devices,” Smith said.
He told the commissioners that 90% of students have accessed online learning since school buildings were shuttered in mid-March.
While asking Smith a question about laptop use, Hewitt said he heard Jan. 1 is when students will return to school.
“Decisions haven’t been made for the fall yet,” Smith said. “But no matter what, we’re going to need computers.”
Karin Bailey, chair of the school board, echoed Smith’s comments in a phone call with The Enterprise.
“There have been no conversations about [when school buildings will open next school year]. Dr. Smith was correct in shutting it down,” she said.
Bailey mentioned that the state’s education department released a draft of a recovery plan that outlines what the return to school could look like.
The 54-page document notes the new norm in a school building could include increased hygiene measures like wearing masks, temperature checks and social distancing; reduced class sizes and desks that are 6 feet apart; reduction of school dances and cancellation of assemblies; and video chat physical education, art and health classes.
The draft also speaks of the possibility of bringing back only a fraction of students, redistributing the 180 days of the 2020-2021 school year and implementing A/B days or have students alternate between in-person and remote classes every day.