TUPELO • When traditional instruction halted in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, public school districts across Northeast Mississippi were tasked with instantly developing plans for online or distance learning. With school districts set to resume varying forms of traditional classes next month, many schools are looking to use a new state law to invest in distance learning.
The law from this past legislative session, Senate Bill 3044, or the Equity in Distance Learning Act, allocates around $150 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to school districts around the state to purchase laptops, internet hotspots and other items to equip students for distance learning technology. The legislation, which attracted wide bipartisan support, automatically became law on Thursday when Republican Gov. Tate Reeves neither signed nor vetoed the legislation.
The law allocates $129,700,000 in grant money, which will go to the school districts. Public schools must apply for the grant through the Mississippi State Department of Education (MDE) to receive the funds, and they must provide a 20% match from all funds they receive.
The amount of funds a district receives will be based off of its “average daily membership” or its daily attendance record. The law also allows the state education department to use $20 million of the total funds at its discretion to distribute to schools based on need. MDE will also receive $300,000 to administer the program.
“We know this technology is very important from job training skills and future academic skills, but I think it’s absolutely essential for our education system,” said state Sen. Nicole Boyd, an Oxford Republican who sits on the Senate Education Committee.
Boyd, a freshman lawmaker, pushed to have language including in the bill saying that school districts would be required to make “specific provisions” for students with special needs when purchasing devices and equipment.
Boyd told the Journal that education advocates have discovered that as schools began to include technology with everyday learning skills, special education students were often the last ones thought about, although school districts likely weren’t intentionally discriminating against special education students.
“We put this statement in there, to make sure school districts, when their plans are submitted, that special education students are included in there,” Boyd said.
State Rep. Kent McCarty, a Republican from Hattiesburg, serves as the vice chairman of the House Education Committee and had a lead role in crafting parts of the law.
Due to federal regulations, school districts have until the end of the calendar year to spend any grant money that they receive. McCarty, a freshman lawmaker, told the Journal that anytime organizations have to spend a lot of money in a short amount of time, there’s a risk for errors, but he believes that because the district will have to work with MDE with the grant money, then the process will work smoothly.
“Basically what the school districts have to do is show what these expenses will be used for,” McCarty said.
The new law comes at a time when cases of the virus have continued to surge in the state and when state health officials have stated that Mississippi’s five largest hospitals have nearly reached their maximum capacity for ICU beds.
Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, in a press conference on Thursday warned “there's not going to be any school if there are outbreaks” and if people cannot abide by basic virus prevention measures.
“We can educate kids safely, we can have kids have a good developmental experience and get those things they need in school but we can’t do it if we are living in a society of reckless abandon … I’m utterly frustrated by our inability to follow some very basic things,” Dobbs said.
With the recent spike in hospitalizations and cases in early July, the fate of the fall semester is uncertain. Under guidelines issued by MDE, school districts can opt to return to traditional classes, offer virtual/distance learning or provide a mixture of the two. Most districts in Northeast Mississippi intend to return with as close to a traditional schedule as possible.
The Daily Journal previously reported that during statewide shelter-in-place orders and closures of non-essential businesses, many residents across Northeast Mississippi — especially in rural areas — were forced to travel long distances to gain access to WiFi to conduct tasks for work.
One Tupelo High School teacher told the Daily Journal that she had to drive several miles from her home to a parking lot to video chat with students during the spring semester due to lacking cellular service and WiFi at her home in Pontotoc County.
Nearly 2,500 Mississippi teachers were surveyed in April by Teach Plus Mississippi, which partnered with MDE, about adjusting to changes caused by COVID-19 closures.
The survey found that 87% of students engaged in virtual learning through online programs/assignments while only 47% were engaged in virtual learning through teacher-led instruction.
Meanwhile, 88% of students received packets or paper-based lessons and activities, a testament to the lack of broadband access in Mississippi.
The number one recommendation resulting from the survey was that “Mississippi must close the digital divide by ensuring that each teacher and student has access to high-speed internet, computers or similar devices, as well as the training and support needed to fully engage in virtual learning.”
Now that nearly all of the state and federal healthcare experts are predicting that the nation will experience a second wave of the novel coronavirus in the fall, how are school districts preparing to bolster distance learning plans going into the fall semester?
Districts throughout the state were allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars from the CARES Act through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), some of which was designated to be used for distance learning improvements, but the new Equity in Distance Learning Act grant program will further help those efforts.
New Albany School District (NASD) received around $460,000 in ESSER funds which was allocated to cleaning supplies and equipment, staff training, according to NASD Superintendent Dr. Lance Evans.
Within three days of schools closing, NASD was teaching classes online via video calls. That was made possible by New Albany’s one to one iPad initiative, which provides an iPad for each student.
The potential funds New Albany will receive as part of the Equity in Distance Learning Act grant program will be used to “refresh” the district’s technology by replacing old devices with newer ones, which happens every three years.
South Tippah School District received around $668,000 in ESSER funds, of which a large percentage has already been allocated to improving distance learning, according to the district’s new superintendent Tony Elliott.
He said any potential Distance Learning Act funds will be used to purchase new devices for students to bring the district to a one to one ratio. And since South Tippah is a rural district and not every teacher has access to the internet at their homes, the district will look into purchasing devices to enable virtual and distance learning in the event that schools were to close down again this fall.
“It’s a problem that we’re turning into an opportunity,” Elliott noted.
Booneville School District received about $296,000 in ESSER funds, which were allocated for purchasing new technology, cleaning supplies, digital curriculum and shoring up budget deficits created by the closure.
Superintendent Todd English said Booneville Schools are already one to one, but potential Distance Learning Act funds would be used to purchase updated devices and more digital content to make for a seamless transition to virtual learning if need be.
“I think we’re seeing where in the future if schools close, education will proceed as normal without a diminishing quality,” English said. “I think that’s where it’s headed, and I’m excited about where it’s going.”
English said that colleges and universities in the state have increasingly embraced technology for years while K-12 schools replace touch screen devices children use at home with lined paper and pencils just because that’s the way current educators were taught.
“We can’t teach kids their future based on our past,” English said. “So I’m super excited about this and I think it can truly be a game changer in Mississippi.”
He expects education in the state to be “exponentially stronger” after the pandemic than it was going into it.