EDITOR’S NOTE: This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 edition of Denton County magazine.

Chavayee Johnson has seen firsthand the difference a computer and a good internet connection can make in a student’s life.

“Their eyes light up when they see their teacher on camera, and they like sending thumbs-up emoticons when they solve a problem,” said the digital specialist at Braswell High School in Denton ISD. “The best thing is when they can connect with their peers in an online breakout room.”

The students are benefiting from the school district’s decision this year to give each of its students in grades 3 through 12 a Chromebook to take home to connect virtually to the classroom. (Returning students can also keep the laptops over the summer break. Younger students each have their own Chromebook, too, but they stay in the classroom.)

The one-to-one Chromebook rollout for students started in March 2020 after the pandemic began shutting down in-person classrooms to go fully online.

The students were used to doing work on computers, Johnson said. Before the pandemic, they had access to laptops in the classroom. But working from home without that tool was a different story.

Many students didn’t have a camera attached to their personal computers or they didn’t know how to log on. Some struggled with a spotty or no internet connection. Others had to wait for their parents to finish using their computer for work or had to share with a sibling. Some students didn’t have a home computer at all.

The Denton school district applied for funding through the Texas Education Agency’s classroom connectivity program to help purchase 12,000 additional Chromebooks, which it rolled out along with 18,000 others by January. The district also supplied families with portable hotspot tools to connect those without internet.

When parents came to pick up the laptops, they got a chance to connect with teachers.

“They were just as excited as the kids,” Johnson said. “Parents called, and thank-you notes poured in.”

The program levels the field for all students by giving equal access to necessary tools for learning, said Ross Garison, director of digital learning for the Denton school district.

Just as a student needs a laptop to learn academically, a teacher needs to see the face of each student to connect with them emotionally, he said. They need to see their face to check in with how they are feeling and how they are connecting with the lesson.

Carrying a laptop in a backpack is just as easy as lugging around a textbook, he added.

“Every student needs the necessary resources for learning, and technology is one of them,” Garison said. “We are excited that we can provide students access to their courses and be consistent and equitable across the board.”

With more students returning to the classroom by March, 7,482 students — or a little more than 25% of the district’s 30,000 students — still were learning virtually.

The district is considering the continuation of virtual learning even after the pandemic, for many reasons, including snow days, or just because a certain student may learn better at home. Officials are planning to launch a virtual academy. Teachers have become adept at angling their cameras to teach an intricate lesson in floral design, for example. Some students connect well online, both academically and socially. And recording events makes it easy for a parent to watch their son’s football game or daughter’s band concert, for example, if they missed it because of work or illness.

“The pandemic, as tough as it has been, has taught us some things about how students learn and interact best,” said Mike Mattingly, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Denton school district. “By teaching our students to become adept with technology, we are preparing them for college and the career world beyond.”

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