Boulder Creek Elementary

Students at Boulder Creek Elementary, a Gilbert Public Schools campus located in Mesa, could receive laptops and internet access from the City of Mesa to facilitate distance learning. 

Mesa’s Small Business Reemergence Program will cost less than expected because only a fraction of the city’s estimated 12,000 businesses have sought grants to help them recover from the pandemic’s impact.

And that may enable the city to buy hundreds of disadvantaged children laptops at elementary schools – including Harris and Boulder Creek, two Gilbert Public Schools campuses located in Mesa.

Although planning is in an early stage, Mesa could potentially use some of its $90 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Act aid to buy laptops for children who have been shut out of distance learning when schools were closed.

Unlike Gilbert, which is still waiting to see what the Ducey administration might give the town in federal virus-relief funds, Mesa and two other cities and two counties in Arizona got direct federal grants worth millions of dollars because their populations exceed 500,000.

Although Mesa Public Schools and GPS made lessons on paper available to kids whose households have no internet access or devices, most education experts agree they are a poor substitute for virtual learning.

In MPS, officials told the Governing Board recently that an estimated 7,000 of the district’s approximate 59,000 students have no devices or internet.

The city program would be directed at so-called Title 1 elementary schools – those with at least 40 percent of all students living in homes at or below the poverty line. 

High school and junior high school students in both districts have been provided with laptops.

Distance learning could become a routine part of education in the 2020-21 school year.

Kathy Hoffman, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, has promised to issue guidelines by the end of the month for schools to reopen in late summer.

But superintendents already are worrying about significant numbers of parents who don’t want to send their kids to school out of concerns over the virus. Moreover, a possible resurgence of virus cases could force a statewide school shutdown.

“I think the new normal will be as early as this fall, our children might not be going back to school in August,’’ Mesa Mayor John Giles said. “I think distance learning will become a bigger and bigger part of the new normal going forward.’’

Two GPS Title I elementary schools in Mesa – Harris Elementary and Boulder Creek – would be included in the city’s plan.

Mesa Councilman Dave Luna, who suggested adding the laptops to the array of Mesa Cares outreach programs, said it is vital that disadvantaged students not fall behind their peers because of a lack of resources.

“I think this is a better way to provide economic opportunity to our students. We know there are kids in poverty that are lagging behind,’’ said Luna, a retired MPS educator.

Such critical details as how many computers would be purchased, how much they would cost and how many students would receive them are yet to be determined. 

Giles, Councilwoman Jen Duff and Vice Mayor Mark Freeman all spoke in support of providing the laptops and the council eventually voted unanimously for staff to develop details for a laptop distribution program.

Luna said his concept is for the city to make payments to MPS and GPS, which would decide what kind of computers to buy and how to ensure WIFI service at homes or community internet “hotspots.’’

Gilbert Superintendent Dr. Shane McCord said he appreciates Mesa realizing about that about a third of his district is in Mesa. Arizona school district boundaries usually do not match city boundaries.

“The ability to use technology to benefit our students has been amplified,’’ McCord said. “Our teachers have pushed into the technology world.’’ 

Expanding Mesa Cares to include distance learning is possible because the first round of the Small Business Reemergence Program will cost about $6 or $7 million – not the $20 million originally set aside by City Manager Chris Brady. 

He said the $20 million budget was based on an estimate and that he is confident Mesa is reaching its target audience.

“I think it’s been a huge success in terms of being able to connect with our smallest micro-businesses,’’ Brady said. “I think we are making good progress with single proprietorships and those with 25 employees or less.’’