Got laptops, now what? Don’t have Internet? Who pays for damage?
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · August 27, 2012

The 485 laptops handed out to West Branch pupils last week amounts to more than one-fifth of the population of the city.

And while nationwide surveys estimate that 70 to 80 percent of homes have the Internet; a West Branch Community Schools survey shows the school population is “well over 80 percent,” technology coordinator Doug Cummings said.

So what do West Branch families do if they do not have the Internet?

One suggestion, he said: Download your research during the school day, then write your homework at night, he said.

Second: Visit the West Branch Public Library or other places in the city with free WiFi hot spots.

Third: “In other districts, they report seeing people pull into the parking lot, work for 10 minutes and then leave,” Curriculum Coordinator Sara Oswald said.

Fourth: School librarian Jenni Olson is talking to cell phone providers about purchasing traveling modems and the feasibility of letting pupils check them out like library books, Oswald said.

Cummings said every MacBook laptop has an “offline mode” that allows every non-Internet program to work.

Last week, the West Branch Times on its Facebook page asked if people felt the laptops would help pupils do their school work faster, or better. About 20 people responded with nearly 60 comments.

“I think that the MacBook laptops ... will enhance the teaching and learning that goes on in our district this year and for many years to come,” wrote parent Cheryl Fischer. “Thanks WBCSD!”

While many felt the laptops would likely help, some questions and concerns popped up as well.

“I am excited about the possibilities but I am also a little concerned about several hundred children running around each day with such an expensive item,” wrote parent Heidi Zahner Younts. “Especially ‘my’ children.”

Parent Jodi Yeggy said she would rather the school “be a leader” in the “1:1 Initiative.”

“As with anything, being one of the leaders means some risks and kinks,” she wrote. “I’d rather deal with some small problems than sit back (and) be the last to the game — all because (of) what ‘could happen.’”

Of the questions that arose, here are some we posed to school staff:

• Will pupils ever need to print out their homework at home?

Cummings said the school hopes to “go more toward paperless” with the laptops, using e-mail to submit much of their homework.

“But we do have printers available,” he said.

Oswald reminded parents that pupils already turn in printed-out reports, and she does not expect that to increase.

• In cases of negligence, where insurance does not cover repair, which parent of a divorced couple is responsible?

Oswald said that may be decided by the parents, perhaps in the same way their custody agreement determines who pays other child-rearing bills.

“That is not for the school to arbitrate,” she said.

• Is the battery covered by insurance?

No, Cummings said, because batteries work by chemical reactions that can falter in extreme heat or cold. However, if the school gets a significant amount of complaints about the batteries, “we will complain to Apple,” he said.

• That $30 parents paid per laptop — is that insurance?

Not really, Cummings said, as the computers are covered by the school’s equipment insurance and a special deal with Apple Care. And if software develops bugs, the school can remotely overwrite it without affecting a pupil’s homework or projects.

“The $30 is a deposit,” he said. “It’s just a way to get (the parents) to put some skin in the game.”

• Why do pupils need flash drives if they can e-mail work to teachers?

Backups, Cummings said. Google Docs save to the “cloud” — an Internet-based server — and to the laptop hard drive. But another backup can only help.

Oswald said there are also some projects that require such large files that flash drives are much more feasible than e-mail. In one class, the pupils make their own movie trailer, she said.

• Which of the following popular Web sites are blocked by the Web filters?

Facebook: Yes

Twitter: Yes

Pinterest: Yes

Not sure: Hulu, Poptropica, Instagram, Bratz, Webkins, Disney

Cummings said individual Web sites may be blocked or unblocked by the school district, but the filters tend to cover the following categories: Social networking, adult, alcohol, tobacco, dating, drugs, “friendship,” gambling, guns/weapons, Web proxy sites, virus/malware, private Web sites, pornography and “violence and hate.”

Considering the recent Chik-Fil-A controversy and strong arguments on both sides of gay marriage issue, we asked: Who determines what is a “hate” site?

Cummings said that parents may bring forth ideas on that topic. Klu Klux Klan sites seemed like an easy one, he said, but several staff said even those should be open for examination.

“There’s a lot defaulted by the (Grant Wood Area Education Agency),” Cummings said. “But this is meant to be tuned.”

He pointed to the PBS Web site which is blocked because of its games, but also has lots of educational material as well.

“We did not get into the granular of site by site,” he said. “Just categories.”

Oswald said the school district has a technology committee to handle decisions like what qualifies as a “hate” site, and that committee can take requests from teachers and parents.

“I don’t think it is in anyone’s best interests to have one person deciding that,” she said.

Cummings noted that the school tracks all Web activity on the laptops, so it knows if pupils work their way into inappropriate sites. And parents who log on to test the filters need to beware: Your activity will be applied to your child’s name.

Sure, if you track what times you surfed the Web on your child’s computer, the school can figure out “that the student is not doing it.”

“But in that same breath, bad stuff could still be making it to the computer,” Cummings said. “There’s lots of room for debate.”

Oswald reminds parents that they still need to be parents, and keep watch over their children while using the laptops.

“Just because (children) got an Xbox doesn’t mean they can play it wherever and whenever they want to,” she said.


Anyone with questions or concerns about the MacBook laptops given to fifth- through 12th-grade pupils, or what is or is not being filtered on the Web, may contact:

• Technology Coordinator Doug Cummings at 643-7216

• Curriculum Coordinator Sara Oswald at 643-5324

• Central Office at 643-7213

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