The Montclair school district will provide school-issued Chromebooks to all students in the fall, expanding on a “one-to-one” technology initiative announced in July.

“We are pleased to announce the start of Montclair’s first one-to-one Chromebook initiative,” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at an Aug. 16 Board of Education meeting. “All grades in K to 12 will receive a Chromebook for in-class instruction.”

The initiative builds on the device distribution Montclair schools did for its 2020-21 school year, providing Chromebooks to families identified as in need of devices for remote schoolwork. The district also helped families get access to the Internet through hotspots or a low-cost Comcast service.

But whether students will be allowed to bring their devices home will be left up to the principals at each school, Ponds told Montclair Local.

With federal loans, the district purchased 3,700 Chromebooks for students in grades six through 12, Christopher Graber, the district’s technology director, told Board of Education members at a July 14 “retreat” meeting. 

First graders will be given Chromebooks purchased last year. Kindergartners will be provided a new set of Chromebooks, Graber said July 14.

After sorting through more than 2,500 Chromebooks returned after the 2020-21 school year, the district identified functioning devices to cover the remaining students in grades two through five, Graber told Montclair Local.

“This is a part of history in Montclair because we never really were a one-to-one [school district],” Graber told Montclair Local. “Regardless of socioeconomic status, every student is going to have a device that's assigned to them.”

Students attending summer classes were allowed to keep their devices for those sessions. Additionally, any family that relied on the district-issued device as a household’s sole device was allowed to keep the device over the summer, Graber said.

At the Aug. 16 board meeting, parent Jonathan Farb asked for more information about the one-to-one initiative and its purpose. Farb is also a member of the Montclair Parents Advocacy Group for Education.

“Obviously any investment in technology for our district is generally positive,” Farb said. “However, there's some confusion on the objective of the program. For example, is this for kids to be on screens at their desks in lieu of more traditional classroom methods or for some other purpose?”

Parent Carolyn Corbran said at the board meeting she hoped providing each student with a Chromebook was not “an easy way just to pivot to virtual learning.” 

“I sincerely hope that having a designated Chromebook for every student being in school is not going to be a mechanism to have students on screen a large portion of their day,��� Corbran said.

Corbran, along with other parents, launched a petition in January via the website Action Network, under the name “Concerned Parents and Community Members of Montclair, NJ,” calling for hybrid and in-person learning to be made available, at a time when Montclair school buildings remained closed. The district had intended to start a hybrid learning schedule that month, but a dispute with the Montclair Education Association pushed back the start of hybrid learning in the 2020-21 school year until April for elementary school students, and later for other students. 

The one-to-one initiative will bring the Montclair district up to par with other districts that already have similar programs, Ponds said at the board meeting. 

“The one-to-one program is an educational program,” Ponds said. “It is not to have our students on computers constantly like they were in the hybrid and virtual model. That is not the intent, and it's not going to be used that way.”

In March, Gov. Phil Murphy declared that the state’s “digital divide is no more,” signaling the completion of an effort to get a device and internet access to any student identified as in need of technology for remote instruction. Early in the pandemic, the state estimated 231,000 of New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students needed either a device, connectivity or both.

Early in the 2020-21 school year, the district struggled to get devices to students, facing both supply shortages and difficulties assessing needs — with school officials following up multiple times on surveys to families about what level of access they had. It’s a process Ponds, in a conversation with Montclair Local, described as “whack-a-mole,” crediting Graber and other staff for their follow-through.

Murphy stressed in March the laptops “are not just for home instruction. They’re just as critical as any textbook.”