Efforts to close digital divide top states’ plans for emergency relief funds
States will primarily use their portion of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to plug remaining holes in students’ access to devices and reliable, high-speed internet access, according to their applications for the block grant. Many will also work to expand and improve the quality of curriculum materials used for distance learning.
Passed as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the fund allows state leaders broad flexibility in directing the money toward either K-12 or higher education, and most plan to include both systems when distributing the money.
Two states, however — Utah and Vermont — indicated they won’t be using the GEER funds for remote learning and provided no additional information.
Several states, such as Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana and South Dakota, will create grant programs for districts. And they’ll give priority in awards to districts serving students with greater needs, such as those with disabilities, English learners and those in low-income and foster families.
“This pandemic has put a significant additional strain on these students, and the state must ensure that their learning and wraparound services remain constant,” reads Kansas’ application, referring to students in foster care. “Additional access to remote mental health services, supports for foster parents and additional lesson plans and best practices will be critical as families and educators enter the summer and prepare for the fall.”
In response to a question in the application, state leaders described the strategies officials used to survey families and educators to determine their needs related to distance learning. And a few noted they are developing or considering a statewide, online education platform with curriculum and instruction — if they don’t already have one.
Mississippi, for example, “is examining leveraging our best K-12 teachers to provide content statewide through virtual courses. This would allow rural and disadvantaged school districts to virtually access best practices and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to the benefit of students and families.”
‘Invest in the people’
The majority of states also listed professional development for teachers — to improve the quality of virtual learning — as another way they’ll use funds, once students’ device and connectivity needs are addressed. “We must invest in the people who will be delivering and facilitating the learning,” reads Indiana’s application.
A recent survey of teachers, conducted by Educators for Excellence, showed only 14% of the 600 respondents said they had “a great deal of experience” with remote instruction before the pandemic, and 44% listed the “challenge of moving instruction from the classroom to online” as a very serious obstacle to effectively implementing distance learning.
Almost two-thirds said they had received PD since the outbreak of the coronavirus, but less than 40% said the learning was very relevant to how they were currently teaching.
In addition, Learning Forward has been collecting feedback from participants during weekly webinars. With almost 14,000 participants so far, educators and other who provide PD have focused the most on two challenges.
“One, they focus on how to reach students in situations that may not support learning daily, whether because of lack of online access or particular family situations,” said Tracy Crow, Learning Forward’s chief strategy officer. “And they’re also eager to learn more about virtual instructional strategies that lead to greater engagement for those students who are able to connect regularly.”
While most states’ applications make general references to PD, North Dakota also noted PD could cover topics that are more difficult remotely, such as “family engagement strategies, student agency, social and emotional skills and application, deeper learning frameworks and assessment practices.”
A few other states named areas for potential funding less common across the states:
- Early learning. Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Nevada and Virginia are among states that will also pass some of the funds on to programs serving young children. “While technology is necessary, students in pre-K also need hands-on materials to facilitate physical and intellectual development that many families do not have, such as manipulatives and consumable instructional materials,” according to Nevada’s application.
Minnesota will set aside $5 million for “entities” providing early-childhood education, and Illinois’ detailed application notes funds could be used for kindergarten transition services and early childhood mental health consultation.
- Early reading. Michigan’s application makes multiple references to “lessons in early literacy.” The state’s law requiring students to be proficient readers before advancing to 3rd grade went into effect this year, but it has been suspended because standardized tests were canceled this year.
And Texas has proposed to use some its $307 million grant for a “virtual, evidence-based dyslexia intervention service that includes all required state components and uses a technology platform that allows for continuity of dyslexia intervention to occur.” Materials could be used virtually, face-to-face or in a blended format.
- Parents needs, voices. In addition to distributing learning materials for children enrolled in state pre-K, Illinois also plans to provide “intensive support for parents to use these materials with their children to support learning at home.”
And North Dakota’s application notes officials need more than just the perspectives of educators. “A vital aspect to our state’s response moving forward will be the voice of our students and families,” the application states, saying a variety of methods for interacting with youth and families “may be necessary to increase our awareness of gaps in educational services throughout our state.”
- K-12 or higher ed. Georgia, Kansas and New Jersey are among states that will prioritize higher education in the use of GEER funds, while Nebraska and New York intend to use all of their funds for K-12. Nebraska, which has received $16.3 million, will emphasize improving services for students with special needs, and New York, with $164 million, aims to give districts “maximum flexibility to use these resources to support ongoing operations.”
- Public and private. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ push for states to give nonpublic schools an equal shot at receiving federal recovery funds has received strong opposition from state superintendents and some members of Congress.
In their applications, most states don’t mention how they’ll distribute funds to nonpublic schools, but a few, including Louisiana, Massachusetts and Minnesota, specifically mention nonpublic schools’ access to the funds and other resources.
While Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt initially suggested he would direct GEER funds toward the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which parents can use for private school, the application makes no mention of that controversial plan. Instead, it says the state plans to create “a digital platform that will allow all students in the state access to robust educational material, virtual classrooms, and curriculum (including five virtual AP courses), as well as robust professional development for teachers on delivering digital learning.”
New Hampshire, on the other hand, will use a portion of its almost $8.9 million grant to fund scholarships for students in low-income families — which is allowed under the law. A document from the U.S. Department of Education states governors can distribute “a subgrant to an eligible entity, which could, in turn, provide scholarships or microgrants consistent with the CARES Act.” In New Hampshire, those organizations — tax credit scholarship funds — are the Children’s Scholarship Fund and Giving Going Alliance.
The state has experienced “devastating levels of unemployment,” said Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. “We know that we have students whose educational trajectories have been disrupted. We’re trying to be as responsive as we can to that.”
According to the application, scholarships “would support these in-need families through a transitionary year as the economic circumstance[s] rebound.”