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Parish schools submit CARES Act budget

Many unknowns remain for 2020-21 academic year
Sunday, May 31, 2020
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The Lincoln Parish school district has submitted its budget for how it plans to spend its portion of federal coronavirus relief funding — plans the district had to make despite not yet knowing what safety restrictions schools may be under in the fall.

The federal aid package known as the CARES Act is allocating a total of $2.3 million to parish schools, but after indirect costs and smaller pots of money for other schools are taken out, the real spendable total for the public school system is some $1.74 million.

About $1.41 million of that sum is budgeted to buy more than 3,100 technology devices for students — take-home Google Chromebooks for grades 3-12 and tablets for pre-K through second grade — as well as 500 hotspot-generating devices to provide internet access in rural homes lacking connectivity.

The main purpose of the funding is to assist local school systems in preparing virtual teaching methods ahead of any potential virusrelated closures or modified school schedules in the future. The Lincoln Parish school system sent a detailed proposed spending budget to the Louisiana Department of Education Thursday.

But Assistant Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer Lisa Bastion said it’s still too early to know what, if any, changes to the 2020-21 schedule or format will be made for health and safety.

“We will have to follow (Centers for Disease Control) recommendations,” Bastion said. “And with that changing throughout the (reopening) phases, we’re not sure what that’s going to look like.”

“So we’ve had to budget for various things without knowing what our options will be,” Bastion said.

She said some of the possibilities include students coming to school in shifts of different days or throughout the same day, as well as allowing parents the option to keep their children home and continue using distance learning.

In addition, districts must also prepare for the possibility that a resurgence of active cases of COVID-19 could force schools back into closure in the fall or winter.

For these reasons, officials said the plans for CARES Act spending at this time are less about knowing what’s going to happen next school year, and more about being ready for any eventuality.

“The primary focus of this funding is to ensure that, whatever the setting, instruction can continue,” Chief Financial Officer Juanita Duke said.

That’s why the Chromebooks and tablets will be incorporated into students’ daily learning, even if the school year begins as normal.

In addition to the new devices, part of the federal grant will also fund technology training for teachers with the intention that every teacher will begin video recording their lessons delivered in the classroom so that students who aren’t present may still access instruction. There is also budgeted money for purchasing some new laptops to help teachers do this, though officials admit the initial funding is not sufficient to equip every teacher with one.

Other plans include paying for screeners in English and math to assess in the fall how far students may have fallen behind in their comprehension during the nine weeks of distance learning that ended the 2019-20 school year.

“If we’re able to stay in school next year, we feel like many students will be able to catch up if there has been any regression,” Bastion said. “For those who can’t, then we’re going to look at offering something to help them catch up.”

Those potential offerings include beforeschool or after-school tutoring programs, as well as summer instruction next year. While some of the CARES Act funding is set aside for teacher pay to provide those programs, officials said they don’t yet know how other costs such as transportation would be funded.

Some other budgeted items include providing an individual set of literature for each student in English classes, rather than sharing classroom sets, so that in the event of future closures each student has his or her own copy. Sanitation materials to ramp up cleaning procedures at schools is another listed item.

On top of the initial funding that has already been promised if the district stays within federal guidelines, Lincoln Parish is applying for an extra pot of “incentive funds” to pay for another wave of student technology, professional development, adaptive equipment for blind students and more.

The district is asking for just over $1 million in incentive funds, but Duke said it’s likely the final approved amount will be less than that.

Despite the federal monies, many of the district’s plans involve continuing costs down the road that will have to be included in future school board budgets. Bastion and Duke said they anticipate future federal funding opportunities will continue to appear soon.

“But we’re going to have to be able to sustain that one day,” Bastion said.

The district must turn in a final plan to the state by June 30 detailing how schools will operate under each possible eventuality in the fall. But for now, things are still in a “wait and see” phase.

“We know we’ve got to have a plan,” Bastion said. “We know we’re going to have to be flexible as changes are made. We hope the changes will be beneficial for us as a district, but we don’t know.”