Thursday, October 10, 2002

Parents worried about laptop insurance

Published in the Current

To a soundtrack of “If I Had A Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies, Cape parents walked into the middle school cafetorium on three different
occasions last week to get their first real look at the seventh-grade laptop program.

While most of the parents were impressed, significant concerns remain, though not in the educational aspects of the computers.

Rather, parents are worried about increased liability if their children take the laptops home and damage them. The laptops are worth up to $1,300, with the monitor screen alone costing $1,000 to replace.

The meetings, required by the state before a school district can send laptops home with students, were well attended, according to middle school Principal Nancy Hutton. Cape was one of the first towns in the state to get the laptops to the students earlier this school year, and is one of the first to have parent meetings as well, Hutton said.

Yellow Light Breen, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said a form of self-insurance is in place for the laptops. Apple Computer has supplied the state with a number of spare laptops that can be used to replace damaged machines.

Breen said school districts should contact their own insurance carriers to discuss the cost of insuring the laptops locally.

He said other locations distributing laptops have used an insurance policy costing about $50 per machine. It is presently available to school districts in Maine, Breen said, but is not mandatory.

The policy, offered by a company called Safeware. The Insurance Agency, out of Columbus, Ohio, does not cover intentional damage and is presently available either individually or as a district-wide group policy.

The sales manager at Safeware, Brian Haase, said the group policy costs $49.50 per machine, while purchasing insurance individually could cost twice as much. “The best rates are under our group program,” which Haase said has a minimum group size of 10 participants.

Insurance is of particular concern to parents as the schools look at sending the laptops home as early as the end of this month.

“The School Board supports getting these home as quickly as possible,” said Technology Coordinator Gary Lanoie, but is concerned about the schools’potential liability if some computers are broken or damaged.

Some of Cape’s machines have already been dropped and damaged during in-school use, Lanoie said, blaming some of the incidents on the cases used to carry and store the computers.

They have several fastening devices that must all be secured, and the computers could be even more protected, Lanoie said, by installing adhesive Velcro straps to the computer and the inside of the carrying case.

At present, that is forbidden by the state’s policy of not allowing any stickers to be applied to the machines.

Use at home
Internet use during school is monitored by teachers and filtered through the school’s Internet connection. At home, however, those restrictions loosen. Hutton and Lanoie all made it clear that students are expected to use their laptops in public areas of their homes, and not lock themselves away from family members while typing.

Parents are entitled to know their children’s passwords and are allowed to supervise any activity their kids undertake on the laptops. Lanoie said students should not be allowed to install games on the laptops, saying that is what home computers are for.

“These are for educational purposes,” he said.

To make it easier to get on-line with the laptops at home, Lanoie has installed several pre-set configurations for local Internet services.

Parent Ken Alden is working to get together a group of parents to discuss parental issues with the laptops, but said Tuesday he has not gotten much interest so far. He believes parents are waiting until the laptops actually come home before getting involved.

Alden said he thinks the program is a good one, but is concerned about the raiding of the laptop fund by the state government to make up budget shortfalls.

Good opportunities
Lanoie and members of the seventh-grade iTeam – a group of students trained to help others with the laptops – showed parents several features of the software installed on the computers, including the entire World Book Encyclopedia, complete with video and audio, as well as the standard text and photos.

Also installed by the Cape schools is the latest version of Microsoft Office software, including Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Lanoie said that was to help prepare students for high school and later life, in which they would be expected to use Microsoft software, as well as to ease the process of e-mailing work between home and school computers.

Seventh-grade teacher and laptop project leader Beverly Bisbee said she has been pleased to see that girls are as involved as boys in the laptop effort, including the iTeam.

She is looking forward to seeing how the program progresses, with laptops expected for both seventh and eighth grades next year. But, she said, further out than that remains unclear. “What’s going to happen when they get to ninth grade? We don’t know yet,” Bisbee said.

First will come the challenge of taking the laptops home this year. Bisbee said teachers are working hard to make sure homework assignments are not dependent on laptop use. Parents are able to choose whether their children are allowed to take their laptops home on any given day, or ever.

After the seventh-graders return next week from their trip to Kieve, a week-long leadership experience in Nobleboro, teachers and students will begin to learn about using electronic mail on the laptops, through a statewide e-mail system for all seventh-grade students and staff.

Parents will be able to e-mail students during the school day, Lanoie said, but “we don’t want that to become the new way to pass notes in class.”