Polk County School District providing laptops, iPads to every student this year

Florida's seventh-largest school district is going digital this fall, announcing a new learning initiative that administrators hope will improve learning for all students.

Polk County Public Schools announced on Wednesday that each of the district's roughly 110,000 students will be provided with an internet-accessible device through the One-to-One Digital Learning Initiative. According to the announcement, younger students in elementary school will be issued iPads, and older students in middle and high school will have laptops.

"In the coming weeks, parents will receive more information from their child’s school," the district said. "Schools will be sending devices home gradually as students learn how to care for them responsibly."

The new program is funded through a combination of local and federal sources, including the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund and Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF).

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On the district's website, "providing devices to all students expands their learning beyond the classroom and provides greater access to resources addressing their individual needs and specific interests."

"I believe this is a great strategy for us moving forward," Polk Superintendent of Schools Frederick Heid said on Thursday.

The district goes on to say that if each student has a device, "this takes away the challenges of needing to share devices at school and at home. Students can continue learning outside the normal school day and are not restricted to the physical restraints of a brick-and-mortar school."

"There is a real ability for us to close that digital divide between the haves and the have-nots," stated Heid. "It is no longer dependent on your circumstances, your poverty level, your socio-economic status, or your location across Polk County."

The initial reaction from parents appears to be mixed, with some emphatically supporting the move and others concerned about screen time or liability in the event that devices are damaged.

"This is great for Polk students," one Facebook user said on the school district's social media page. "Like it or not, we are living in a world DOMINATED by tech. If we want these kids to have productive futures, we need to give them job security in the form of exposure to technology and typing! We need to be looking at ways to use technology to enhance education, not pushing it away for fear of change."

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Another commenter wrote, "What about the parents who cannot afford a device at home, that would require the student to bring the school-issued one home…and then if something were to happen…that same parent can’t afford the fees hence not having their very own one at home. For some, this will be extremely unaffordable in every direction."

If students damage or break their device, the district says students will need to report it to their teacher or network manager. A loaner device will be checked out to the student. Repair fees are based on each device and will vary by level of damage and repairs needed. Replacement fees for a laptop are $674.50. For iPads, it will cost $349.

The district said it is currently investigating device insurance for families.

Polk County Public Schools says it has implemented a content filter on all student devices, which automatically blocks inappropriate, harmful, and security-risk websites to keep students and schools safe. 

"District staff monitor all web traffic and provide school administrators with information regarding any attempted inappropriate internet usage," the district said.

Parents who do not want a laptop or tablet coming home with their student are being instructed to contact their school administrator to request an opt-out form. 

"Your student will still have access to a device while at school," the district said. "The parent is required to provide device access at home to complete schoolwork."