MOUNT VERNON – Two Wiggin Street Elementary parents came to Monday night’s Mount Vernon Board of Education meeting to share their concerns about a recent PTO vote to spend $6,700 each year on technology.
Shannon Simpson, mother of a Wiggin Street third grader, said the school’s PTO voted in May to create a line item that will funnel $6,700 each year to the school for Chromebooks “or technology as needed.” The funding will allow most Wiggin Street students (K-5) to have a Chromebook, fellow parent Andrea White said, whereas before the ratio was closer to one Chromebook per every two students.
Both Simpson and White, who voted against the measure, shared concerns with the board Monday about elementary students being overexposed to electronic screens. Research has shown that too much screen time can negate a child’s ability to sleep and retain information, Simpson said. There is also a direct correlation between screen time and depression, Simpson said, referring to recent studies conducted by psychologists in sleep medicine and public medicine.
“It’s not based in opinion, it’s based in a lot of evidence that is coming out,” Simpson told the board. “There is a great deal of research on it.”
Simpson and White also felt the PTO’s vote to fund Chromebooks did not fit the organization’s purpose. Each year, the PTO votes on how to spend the money it raises through the mum sale and other fundraisers, White explained. These funds are typically used on extracurricular items, she said, such as new playground equipment. Spending thousands of dollars each year on curricular equipment felt out-of-line, White said, and superintendent Bill Seder agreed.
“We would never expect PTOs, on behalf of the board, to purchase Chromebooks for our students,” Seder said. “If we believe they need them, then we’ll purchase them.”
Seder said he spoke with Wiggin Street administration about his concerns regarding the PTO’s curricular spending. There had been rumors about the district not having enough money to fund new Chromebooks for the school, and that the current Chromebooks were out-of-date, Seder said, although those were untrue.
White was also bothered by the lack of clarity and transparency involved in the PTO’s vote. It is still unclear what “technology as needed” means, she said, and it’s also unclear who would determine what the money is spent on.
While the idea of funding Chromebooks had been brought up at previous PTO meetings, White added, questions about other potential funding avenues had not been answered by the time the vote was held. Several other items being considered for funding were also never discussed prior to the vote, Simpson said.
“Typically, when you follow Robert’s Rules [of Order], anything that’s brought up for a vote is open to discussion. And if you still have questions, you could either table it or you have to end discussion,” White said. “The discussion wasn’t necessarily ended for some of those things, there were questions remaining."
Despite the lack of information surrounding the vote, White said the technology line item passed favorably. Simpson said she will no longer raise money for PTO if it chooses to give the school $6,700 each year for Chromebooks and other technology that could harm her child and others. She also told the board her child would be leaving the district if the school didn’t change its philosophy on technology.
“I’m a new person to this community and the school that my daughter went to was a very high-end school in the Baltimore area, and they don’t really introduce screens until fifth grade, and I specifically chose the school for that reason. When I moved here, I was really aware that there weren’t going to be a lot of screens, it was more of a play-based thing,” said Simpson, who teaches academic research at Kenyon College.
“And since this whole thing, it has really changed my mind about this community and how I talk about the school to other people that are thinking about moving here. It certainly led me to really rethink where I want my child to be.”
Seder said the district’s hands are somewhat tied when it comes to its technological philosophy. The state mandates 21 tests for students grades 3-12, and all are taken on laptops. Students must be able to type quickly and proficiently for short-answer questions, and they must also be able to perform tasks like pivoting a virtual protractor and measuring with a virtual ruler in order to pass.
“If we don’t do our due diligence and prepare students to be able to take these kinds of tests, we’re being negligent, quite frankly,” Seder said.
He added that technology can be good in moderation, as students will ultimately need to be prepared for the demands of modern society. However, Seder said he understood Simpson’s concerns.
“I believe we learn best one-to-one and with our teacher, that teacher being up front. But we have to prepare our kids for, unfortunately, these high-stakes tests, and that’s what we’ll be inclined to do,” Seder said. “And I think there is value, quite frankly, in some educational technology. How much? Certainly that is a matter that we can discuss as we go on.”
Simpson hopes the district will consider the consequences of implementing additional screen time for its youngest students. One of the studies Simpson cited states children are only supposed to receive an hour or less of screen time per day, and going beyond that can severely damage their mental and social development.
White, an assistant professor of psychology at Kenyon, said parents and educators are currently struggling to find ways to moderate technology use for youngsters.
“These students recognize that they’re caught up in this, and it’s problematic,” White said. “And they want tools to be able to manage it, but we don’t know what those tools are.”
Mount Vernon City Schools currently supplies Chromebooks for middle and high school students, Seder said, for educational purposes. As long as the state mandates computer-based testing, the district will continue to provide laptops for each student. Many students would not have access to such technology without district support, board member Cheryl Feasel noted.
But with added technology comes an increasingly visible – and human – cost, Simpson said. While she understood the district must adapt to state requirements, Simpson encouraged the district to fight hard for moderation.
“This is just the way things are going to be,” Simpson conceded. “I just hope that we can continually assess how students are doing outside of just their performance on tests, but as a whole student. Because at the college level, where we work, there’s a mental health crisis.”