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Federal funding may help Mississippi schools improve distance learning

Mississippi school districts will have an influx of funding from the CARES Act that can be used to help increase their capacity for distance learning in the future.

The Mississippi State Board of Education discussed CARES Act funding at their meeting Thursday, which was held via videoconference and live streamed on YouTube.

The federal legislation provides three pools of funding, said State Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright. The Governor will be given approximately $34.6 million to allocate to school districts that have suffered educationally due to COVID-19, while K-12 education will receive $169.9 million to distribute to districts based on the formula used to allocate Title funding in the 2019 to 2020 school year. The Mississippi Department of Education will set aside 10 percent of that funding, said Wright. Post secondary education will also receive funding. Of the funding, 9.8 percent will go to the Governor, 43.9 percent will go to k-12 education and 46.3 percent will go to Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.

The funding is a one-time source of revenue, so how the funds are spent will need to be carefully considered, said Wright. MDE is developing guidance to help districts determine how to spend the funds so more school districts will be prepared to provide high quality distance learning programs in the future. The districts will have approximately a year to spend the funds, but the state has applied for waivers that could extend the timeframe the schools have to spend both the CARES Act funds and some other federal funding if necessary.

The districts will have a lot of funds on hand, so it is very important that the funding is spent in a thoughtful way, said Wright. There could be a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the fall, she said, so schools need to prepare for the possibility that distance learning may be needed again in the fall semester.

Wright will be meeting with the Teachers Advisory Council to hear directly from teachers what distance learning efforts have been successful, what challenges they face and what skills they wish they had, she said.

Pearl River Central School District Superintendent Alan Lumpkin said he was excited to hear that the district will receive additional funding. Poplarville School District Superintendent Konya Miller said the district will need to do a needs assessment to help determine how to spend the CARES Act funds.

“I think the biggest thing is we’ve got to come up with a specific plan district wide and make sure that all of our teachers are trained to the same capacity,” said Miller.

Brannon Johnson, Curriculum Director and Federal Programs Director for the Picayune School District, was also excited to hear about the CARES Act funding.

Along with distance learning, districts could also use the funding to sanitize classrooms, purchase hardware or to provide mental healthcare resources, said Johnson.

Districts do not know yet exactly how much funding they will be allocated from the CARES Act and will need to develop proposed budgets for the funding for MDE approval, but Johnson expects distance learning and mental healthcare will be big expenses.

School districts are still in the planning phase, but the Picayune School District may use the funds to improve distance learning by doing things like acquiring additional Chromebooks or finding ways to help more students access the Internet, said Johnson.

Lumpkin said the biggest challenge for distance learning in the Pearl River Central School District is that not all students have Internet access. While the district is offering paper packets for those students, it is more challenging for teachers to give a student feedback when the student cannot participate in Google classroom or Google meetings.

“The concerning part is the students that do not have Internet access and might fall through the cracks at this time,” said Lumpkin. “That’s the challenge that we have—to reach out to all of our children, to make sure that no one falls through the cracks at this time.”

Lumpkin said state leaders have advised districts that it is possible that funding from the state may be affected by the economic challenges created by the crisis.

“Right now, we don’t have any figures as to how that might flow down to the school districts,” said Miller. “Of course, that’s something that’s always in the back of your mind, because the economy affects every part of government.”