MDE requests CARES Act funding to improve distance learning efforts

As Governor Tate Reeves and the leaders of the Mississippi Legislature attempt to work together on a plan to divvy up the state’s $1.25 billion of CARES Act funding, the Department of Education has presented a plan to use a portion of the funds to improve the state’s distance learning efforts. 

During a Wednesday Senate Hearing, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carey Wright outlined the department’s plan to “connect all Mississippi children to the internet so schools can deliver high-quality instruction digitally.”

With a price tag of $250 million, the MDE says that the plan “aims to bring equity to education by putting a device in the hands of every student who needs one, ensuring students have internet access at home, training teachers how to teach remotely, and providing districts with a choice of high-quality options for a digital curriculum and an online system to deliver it.”

“The COVID-19 public health crisis that caused statewide school closures has amplified the inequities that our students live with,” Wright said. “Children with no access to computers or the internet at home have been put at a great disadvantage when schools shifted to distance learning.”

Additional information on the proposal was provided in a news release from the MDE:

The plan would need an additional $100 million a year for the next two years for license renewals, professional development and refreshing equipment.

Districts have been allocated over $160 million in federal education funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to support student learning, though those funds are not sufficient to address their technology needs.

The percentage of Mississippi households that don’t have a computer device ranges from 44% in Greenwood to 8% in Oxford, according to the U.S. Census and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Statewide, 32% of households do not have broadband.

MDE’s multi-year solution would close the gaps in Mississippi’s broadband coverage by providing hotspots to homes that don’t have high-speed internet.

“This is 2020. Every child should have access to a device and high-quality instructional materials,” Wright said.

The MDE has been working with national experts to develop its digital learning plan and has sought support for it from the Mississippi Alliance for Nonprofits and Philanthropy and national education groups.

Wright told lawmakers about the advantages of equipping students with technology, whether they are learning at home or in school. The technology would provide tools for home use to reach English Learners and to meet the sensory needs of students with disabilities. It could also help alleviate the teacher shortage by enabling highly qualified teachers to teach students in different parts of the state remotely.

“There has never been a better opportunity for the state to address the inequities that exist among our students,” Wright said. “A person’s education is life determining. It defines their future. This is a life-changing opportunity for the children of Mississippi.”