For months, long before the pandemic, Mark Outten, director of technology for the Orange County Public Schools, had been preparing to assign a Chromebook to every student at Orange County High School and both middle schools. High school students would take their machines home at night, and middle-schoolers would carry theirs around during the school day.

The massive project required an inventory of Chromebooks students already were using in the schools, purchase of additional laptops and a system for assigning machines to individual students. According to Outten, the goal was to have everything in place by the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. 

Then COVID-19 reared its beastly head. In March, Gov. Ralph Northam shuttered schools across Virginia for the remainder of the school year, and the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) suddenly faced a pressing question: How do you educate nearly 5,000 students stuck at home?

Outten played a key role in answering that question. While teachers and curriculum administrators worked on the substance of online learning, he ramped up efforts on the hardware. 

By April, he and his staff had 2,500 Chromebooks ready for students of all grade levels to pick up and use at home. Although many made do with their own computers, Outten said about 2,350 loaner laptops went home with families whose children needed them.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Cecil Snead said the early preparation paid off: “While our timeline for the rollout [of laptops] was originally for the fall of 2020, the pandemic accelerated elements of that vision. We’re still ironing out the rough spots, but at least we are in the game.”

The most remarked-on rough spot is the lack of reliable internet access in rural parts of the county. To address that problem, the county plans to set up wireless hotspots in the parking lots at the Barboursville Volunteer Fire Department and Orange County Airport, according to Lewis Foster, the county’s broadband program manager. He said wireless access will be available at Booster Park and Barboursville Community Park as well. The county is aiming to provide wireless access at these locations in December, so long as the necessary agreements are in place by then. In the meantime, many students and their parents have discovered the free Wi-Fi available in county library parking lots.

“Kind of like a rental car”

As the new school year approaches, Outten and his staff are readying iPads for children in kindergarten and first grade and Chromebooks for just about everyone else. (Outten noted that some high school students may get Windows laptops so they can take drafting classes.) This time around, every student will be assigned a school device.

“This way, we know that when we send home the computer, we know what’s on it,” Outten said. “It’s sort of like issuing a textbook.”

Each machine will be free of (computer) viruses and equipped with a content filter to keep out the “bad stuff,” he said.

When the weirdest school year ever ended in May, families were required to return the borrowed computers. Given the potential for extreme wear and tear, Outten said he was “expecting the worst and hoping for the best. And I think we got pretty much the best scenario. We did not see a lot of damage, which was great.”

No one was fined for damages to the computers, he said, and there were only one or two that came back broken.

“We didn’t see a lot of cracked screens and completely totaled computers. What we saw was nicks and scratches and dents and things like that. It’s kind of a like a rental car. You know, you always drive the rental car back, but it may not be in the same condition [as before].”

“Greatest job in the world”

Outten, 50, grew up in Madison County and became fascinated with computers at a young age. He remains grateful to his high school teachers who let him spend much of the day in the computer lab, often helping younger students learn how to use computers.

After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Air Force and then earned a B.S. in business administration and an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction in the instructional technology track, both from the University of Florida.

When the tech director position opened up in the Madison County Public Schools, he came home and worked there for about a dozen years. He then took the tech job in Louisa and, after four years, accepted an offer from Orange County.

He was hired by Snead, who was still new in his position as Orange County’s superintendent. From the beginning, the two agreed it would be a good idea to provide students with laptops for their school work.

Making sure each student had a school-issued computer “was definitely a top priority for both of us. Mark has been excellent in moving that vision forward,” Snead said.

Despite the shadow cast by the public health crisis, Outten is enthusiastic about the upcoming school year. “We got through the spring pretty well, and I think we’re going to be in a good position going forward. We got lucky on a couple of things. We found some cases that we’ve ordered for the older machines, which will help in certain situations. The newer machines will have cases on them. We really haven’t had that luxury before.”

A computer case may seem like a small thing in the midst of a pandemic, but Outten knows every detail matters when it comes to providing students with a quality education, online or off.

“I love my job,” he said, adding, “I love helping kids. I love helping teachers help kids. I tell people all the time I have the greatest job in the world. I get to give away the internet.”