Teachers forced to “MacGyver” their own tech solutions

When states don’t reimburse teachers for supplies, they have to figure out ways to make remote teaching work and how to pay for it

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When Audrey Green, a middle school teacher in Broward County, Florida, began the year working remotely with her students, she had a lot to think about.

She had to establish a personal connection with students she’s never seen face to face and help children develop tools to cope during a pandemic. And she had to handle emotionally heavy issues, like the student who hung around after class online because she said she didn’t want to be alone. All of that while also ensuring they were being challenged academically.

But before she could do any of the hard work of teaching students through a screen, she had to solve another problem. How would she set up those screens in the first place?

Teachers have long spent their own money to outfit their classrooms — on average, teachers spend $459 out of pocket on school supplies annually, according to an analysis of 2011-12 data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. Some teachers get some of that money back: Several states provide at least partial reimbursement for these expenses and the federal government allows a $250 tax deduction, according to Alyssa Evans, a policy researcher at the Education Commission of the States.

But the national economic crisis means that teachers might be out of pocket this year as they attempt remote teaching. States that normally compensate teachers for their expenditures might not have the money to fund those programs. In Nevada, for instance, the state created a $4.5 million program in 2015 that allows local schools to set their own rules or reimburse teachers who buy their own supplies. The budget for that item this year? Nothing. The state legislators zeroed out that budget item due to the pandemic-fueled budget crisis.

Florida, where Green teaches, is one of the states that provides teachers with a pot of money to be reimbursed for supplies. But technology isn’t an allowable expense because the law excludes equipment.

Green is also a technology liaison at Silver Trail Middle School, so she was able to think of solutions to remote teaching issues that may trip up a less tech-savvy educator. “I’m a MacGyver,” she said. “I can cook you an entire meal with an old whisk.”

And yet even for Green, the start of the school year brought seemingly endless obstacles.

Consider, for instance, the seemingly mundane task of ensuring the 35 to 40 students in the virtual room could hear and speak during class. Most cell phones these days don’t come with headphone jacks, so many students only had wireless earbuds at their disposal, but needed plug-in headphones for their laptop school computers. Some students were unable to procure those. Green got a tablet to use on the side so she can chat with those students via text.

The tablet is one of several screens she uses to pull off remote teaching. She has a work-issued laptop and a large monitor she uses to see and acknowledge raised hands among a sea of three dozen faces. She uses another screen to project presentations and examples for the children to look at while also being able to see their teacher.

It’s “like mission impossible,” Green said.

Green had access to extra technology around her house to hack together her remote workstation. But she also had to buy things, like an extra $40 for battery packs to ensure she can stay connected. Green said she is fortunate that she had a lot of things on hand. She knows other teachers who weren’t as lucky.

“It’s money, money, money going out, going out to make it work and they won’t cover it,” she said.