School districts can apply for funding soon

Published 7:00 am Friday, June 5, 2020

Local school districts should be able to apply for federal CARES Act funds to help districts respond to COVID-19 in a matter of weeks, not months, said Dr. Nathan Oakley, Mississippi Department of Education Chief Academic Officer.

The one-time funding is designed to help districts respond to the coronavirus outbreak, said Oakley. MDE has been allocated $169.9 million, of which 90 percent will be distributed to school districts throughout the state and 10 percent will be retained by MDE to support local districts, potentially with professional development, said Oakley. Of the 10 percent set aside for MDE, 0.5 percent, roughly $800,000, will be used to offset administrative costs associated with administering the CARES Act funds, said Oakley.

MDE has received confirmation of funding availability from the federal government, said Oakley.

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MDE collected public input on how the funds should be spent with an online survey. The information is being used for additional guidance that MDE will give to districts about how to prioritize using the funding.

The CARES Act allows for broad use of the funds. MDE is recommending that districts do not use the funds for long term staffing, since it is a one-time injection of funding, said Oakley. Instead MDE is recommending districts use the monies for things like bolstering distance learning, with Wi-Fi hotspots or devices for students.

Decisions about how the funds are spent will be made at the local level, said Oakley. School districts will submit plans outlining how they plan to use the funds to MDE for approval. MDE is working with a vendor to create a software system that school districts can use to submit their application and access the funds. Districts should be able to submit funding applications within weeks, not months, said Oakley.

MDE has identified several priorities for the funding: transition back from summer, instructional materials, support for at risk students and technology.

“We see this as really an opportunity to put the best possible content that we can into the hands of our students,” said Oakley. “Ideally these lessons are facilitated by a live teacher through a learning management system. There’s video instruction whether live or recorded. It’s engaging. It’s interactive.”

While distance learning courses for higher grades, especially at the high school level, are not new, delivering educational content to elementary students has been a greater challenge, said Oakley. Younger students need more immediate feedback and redirection from teachers, said Oakley.

Distance learning that is asynchronous, where teachers put out assignments that students do independently like writing an essay, can be easier for students to access. The student can go to a location with Wi-Fi, download the content and work on it without needing continuous Internet access. Synchronous content, where everyone has to be able to access the content at the same time like during a class discussion, is harder for students without consistent Internet access, said Oakley.

Pearl River County Superintendent Alan Lumpkin said if the district is awarded CARES Act funds the plan is to use them to make school safer for students and staff in the fall with sanitation supplies, some form of temperature checks for students and to improve technology infrastructure to continue distance learning.

Every student in the district has a Chromebook in the classroom, but not every student has Internet access at home, so administrators are discussing acquiring hotspots to help with that issue, said Lumpkin. How the funds will be spent is still undecided, because the district has not received either the funds or confirmation of how much funding it will receive.

“We really wish we could have those funds by this summer so we could use those funds for this next school year,” said Brannon Johnson Curriculum Director and Federal Programs Director for the Picayune School District.

Johnson said administrators in the Picayune School District want to use the monies to purchase hardware or software that would allow online learning or distance learning, if MDE allows.

The district is very close to having a Chromebook for every student, and CARES Act funds could ensure that every student has one. Again, not every student in the district has home Internet access, which is a problem for distance learning.

The funding could also be used to help offer mental health resources to students, said Johnson.

With students at home and away from teachers, school staff and social workers, Johnson is worried that some could be in dangerous home situations.