Using CARES Act funding for PD, connectivity

Education experts explain how CARES Act funds can be used to provide educational continuity and to support teachers and students
By: | May 28, 2020 JGI Jamie Grill JGI Jamie Grill

States and districts that are looking for the most effective ways to spend Education Stabilization Funds authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, should invest in long-term solutions rather than quick fixes, according to several education experts.

During a recent online presentation, experts discussed how CARES Act funds can be used to provide educational continuity and support teachers and students in the coming months.

Schools should not be attempting to return to the status quo once the COVID-19 crisis passes, said Ji Soo Song, senior policy and advocacy associate at the International Society for Technology in Education. Educators should plan for long-term shifts, he said, as “state revenues will be cut, inevitably.” He said state and local educational agencies should “use this as an opportunity to double down on education investment” and close the gaps in student achievement and accessibility that distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed.

“Equity is the key word to start these discussions,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium of School Networking. “The pandemic has made crystal clear that we don’t have broadband internet at home, and we are making great progress at school.”

He said the sudden shift to distance and online learning shows that, while great progress has been made at improving school connectivity in recent years, “expectations have changed” during the extended school shutdown, and there is a need to ensure that students and families have access to hardware and online resources at home to ensure achievement gaps do not grow.

Candice Dodson, executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association, agreed that this has been an “eye-opening experience” for many school administrators, who must consider “what kinds of opportunities digital tools and resources provide all students,” adding that some superintendents are planning for long-term distance learning efforts. “We aren’t going to be able to put this back into the box,” she said of the move to online learning.

Investing for the long term

Song said there are three priorities educators must address to ensure effective distance learning:

1. Educational capacity, including ability of teachers to provide meaningful learning opportunities for students in virtual learning spaces.

2. At-home access for all students. The limited broadband access for rural students and students from low-income families exacerbates achievement and opportunity gaps as learning moves online.

3. Digital learning content that encourages students to be actively involved and engaged.

Song said state educational agencies and LEAs should invest in the “human element.” Educators should learn how to effectively use the digital learning tools they have at hand, and Education Stabilization Funds should be spent on professional development systems that build the capacity of teachers that are grounded in accepted standards across the field.

“Districts need to take a breath,” said Dotson, noting that many LEAs across the nation have rolled out different digital learning tools over the years. She said that while some states, like Indiana, had been using distance learning prior to the COVID-19 crisis to ensure continuity of education during inclement weather, other states had no policies in place to provide education beyond the “brick-and-mortar” locations and have had to quickly implement plans.

She suggested that district officials take inventory of what is already in place, and then think strategically before spending Education Stabilization Funds to prepare for the longer-term response. “Think beyond the current crisis,” she said. “How do we use the summer months to go back to things we have in place?”

Krueger said schools could be using ESF funds to support distance learning initiatives and access, but the Consortium for School Networking is advocating for more funds in the next stimulus package, which is currently being discussed as a possibility in Congress. Krueger said that the new legislation is necessary to provide funds for broadband access as well as cybersecurity initiatives. “A lot of networks are at risk.”

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for ESEA Now, a DA sister publication.

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