/Senate proposes $150 million to supply public school districts with internet devices

Senate proposes $150 million to supply public school districts with internet devices

Nonprofit Mississippi News Education officials are debating when and how to reopen public school in the fall. Meanwhile, legislators are working on legislation to allocate $150 million in federal stimulus funds for Mississippi’s public schools to implement a digital learning program. The “Equity in Distance Learning Act” was introduced by Dennis DeBar (R-Leaksville), the Senate Education Committee Chair. This bill would provide funding for the state’s public schools in order to support online learning and technology. The Legislature is to allocate $150 million of the $1.25 billion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money to the state. This would require legislators to pass a separate bill. Last week, the Mississippi Department of Education released guidelines for how schools should reopen in fall. The department is currently working to implement a digital learning program for the next school year. It intends to use federal stimulus funds that it received directly as well as money from the Legislature. Technology, curriculum, training and internet connectivity are all key components of the plan. They will provide resources for districts that want to implement a digital learning program. According to the department, the plan is expensive. Each school district will need about 300,000 tablets or laptops, thousands of wi-fi hotspots, and the purchase of digital curriculum and trainings. The CARES Act provides federal funds to pay for the cost of this project. Gov. Tate Reeves was awarded $34.6 million from a fund that is specifically for education. $169.8million was also provided to K-12 schools by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Separately, $1.2 billion of federal funds are under the control of the Mississippi Legislature to be used in relief efforts for coronavirus. The department has requested $200,000,000 from the Legislature’s share of federal funds. The Legislature will allocate funding to schools according to average daily attendance. This is how school funding is calculated. DeBar stated that this was the most fair way to allocate funding after much discussion. According to the bill, districts are encouraged to match the contribution of the Legislature with their own ESSER funds. DeBar stated that the $150 million lawmakers plan to allocate to students would come to around $350 per student. “Devices” would be the first priority of the program. This includes tablets, computers and hardware as well as software and software to use them. The second priority would be “connectivity”, which ensures that families have access internet services. Senator Hob Bryan (D-Amory) said that he was concerned about Mississippi’s inability to access broadband internet, especially in rural areas. Census Bureau data shows that nearly one-fifth Mississippi households don’t own a computer, and almost one-third do not have broadband internet access, which is the federal standard for internet speed. Bryan asked, “Is there any other legislation that will address it?” “I have a fair amount of people in my area, who, if they had a device to use it, would have to travel 12 to 15 miles to a McDonald’s in order to get it.” DeBar pointed out that there is another bill pending to expand internet access in Mississippi. He said that the bill for distance learning would help families and schools with temporary measures such as MiFi hotspots at schools and internet antenna towers at schools. DeBar stated that “my biggest fear is that, in August or September if we have another round (COVID-19), and schools are closed again and we’re back in the same place we were before,”. Many districts switched from sending out packets to their students when Reeves decided to close schools this spring in order to stop the spread of the virus. The Department of Education conducted a survey of districts to find out how they teach. Only 13 of them indicated that they use virtual learning exclusively. Senator Nicole Boyd (R-Oxford) questioned if teachers and parents would be able to get enough training on the software programs and devices. Boyd stated that a device without technical training is useless. DeBar stated that the bill’s purpose is to provide professional training for students, teachers, and parents. The bill would also require districts to create distance learning plans in order to prove they can sustain their programs. This is because the funds are “one-time money” that schools would need to continue to use. The bill would require districts that they provide plans by October 1. The bill was passed by the committee without much discussion and is now headed to the full Senate. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to the Spring Member Drive today.