Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the federal government distributed $2 trillion through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, $30.75 billion of which was designated to states for education.
Of the money earmarked for education – which comes from a category known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund – Mississippi received approximately $169.88 million for school districts, including charter schools. Broken down even further, the five public school districts in The Pine Belt News coverage area received more than $6.6 million to help recover from the impact of the virus.
Each district received monies based on Title I funding, which are federal dollars given to schools with a high number of low-income students enrolled.
The Forrest County School District received approximately $1.32 million, about half of which is being used for technology items such as switches and other infrastructure to handle virtual setup.
“It’s primarily to make sure our infrastructure is good for our virtual learning, even for the people who select virtual-only (schooling), or when we have to eventually close and do virtual for the entire district,” superintendent Brian Freeman said. “The rest of (the funds) is a split between where we hired some additional nurses to help with the medical side of the corona situation; we hired two additional nurses so we can have a school covered every day by a nurse.
“And then we also hired a couple of behavior specialists that we believe we may need, with some of the things that are going on and experiences some of our children have received during this long time away from school.”
Any leftover funds will be used for personal protective equipment, including hand sanitizer and fogging apparatuses.
“Then of course, we’ve got masks – thousands of masks that we’ve bought,” Freeman said. “We’re going to require a mask of everyone during the school day; we’re going to provide a mask to start the day with for all our employees and all our students.
“We’ll buy some additional ones probably every couple of months and provide those, and we’ll have a lot of disposable ones for children who are going to leave masks at home.”
The Petal School District also is using most of its $674,136 for technology for all students throughout the district. The district is going to a 1:1 ratio for students to Chromebooks, which means one computer for every one student from grades seven through 12. Students will be allowed to use the computers at home as well as at school.
“Then we’ll continue to have access at the building level for all of the elementary (schools) like we normally have,” superintendent Matt Dillon said. “A good portion of this money is going to allow us to purchase some media technology to prepare for whatever we might experience going into this school year.”
District officials also have purchased some instructional technology devices that will allow educators to teach live from the classroom. Teachers also will be able to use a high-quality video camera system that allows certain teachers in every grade to download their lessons or teach live for students who choose the virtual attendance option.
In addition, officials have used funds from the CARES Act to purchase sanitation and cleaning products to help ensure the safety of faculty, staff and students. The district also is looking at adding more substitute teachers to better cover classrooms as needed.
Dillon did note that the CARES Act is one-time funding.
“When you think about this from a sustainability standpoint, moving forward after this year, you’re going to have to figure out if there’s a reoccurring cost associated with anything you purchased,” he said. “You’ve got to understand it’s going to be an added cost to the district moving forward, if there’s something attached to it that’s not just a one-time purchase.”
Tess Smith, superintendent of the Lamar County School District – which received approximately $1.76 million in CARES funds – said the district can use its funds for sanitation supplies and related safety measures. However, in order to apply for the grant to get electronic devices such as Chromebooks, the district is required to put forth 20 percent, so a good portion of the CARES money will go toward that.
“We appreciate any and all funds to aid us in dealing with COVID,” Smith said. “I only wish we could get our devices on the way because we need them for our virtual students. It’s all a process and I do understand that. There has to be checks and balances with this type of funding.”
Officials from the Hattiesburg Public School District plan to use the $2.81 million the district will receive partly on Chromebooks and Promethean panels, which are interactive touchscreens that can project images from laptops or other computers. In addition, officials have purchased personal protective equipment, such as cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, for students and staff.
Afternoon and evening time tutoring for students also has been factored into the budget.
“We have a pretty decent number of students who are doing 100 percent online (schooling), so we want to make sure that we have some tutoring opportunities for parents in the afternoon, to help our parents and students with their classwork,” superintendent Robert Williams said. “(The funds) are going to be a big help, because it’s going to allow us a better opportunity to look at becoming more of a one-to-one (student to Chromebook) district and providing devices for students to be able to do distance learning.
“It’s also a big help with the personal protective equipment, because these are items that we are purchasing in addition to any normal cleaning that we already do.”
Officials from Forrest County Agricultural School, which received approximately $177,603, did not provide comment before press deadline.