At a Dolton-Riverdale school board meeting in the spring, district leaders and two technology vendors pitched a $3.3 million tech overhaul. 

They told the board in the high-poverty district in Chicago’s south suburbs that the project would “future-proof the classroom” and “catapult Dolton into the next generation of learning technology.”

A couple of members balked. They said they felt rushed to approve the deal and questioned why it had not been put out for a bid. But deputy superintendent Sonya Whitaker urged them to back the project that March evening, insisting that the district was staring down a deadline to spend a portion of its federal COVID relief money.

Out on Capitol Hill, she warned, the feds are “itching to take this money away from us.” 

The board approved the deal 4-2. As a result, the district’s 1,900 elementary students will return later this summer to classrooms outfitted with multiple touch screens, motion-tracking cameras, and microphones — part of an uncommon plan to embrace hybrid learning.

Officials say the technology will boost attendance by allowing students who are sick or traveling to virtually join classmates, and will help with teacher shortages by letting an educator or a substitute teach two or more classrooms at a time. 

The pressure felt by the Dolton board is hitting districts across the state as they face a Sept. 30 deadline to commit dollars from the second of three stimulus packages — and a year later, another deadline to spend the third, largest, and final installment of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the unprecedented federal infusion of money to help schools recover from COVID.