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Schools getting $2.3M for distance learning

CARES Act relief funds to pay for laptops for all students
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
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The Lincoln Parish School Board is slated to receive $2.3 million in federal relief funding to help improve schools’ distance learning efforts and student access to technology in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The money comes from the $2.2 trillion federal aid package called the CARES Act. It’s intended to assist local school systems in making up for any learning gaps in the fall created by the nine weeks of lost face-to-face education this spring, as well as prepare schools for the possibility of a coronavirus resurgence shuttering their doors once again.

Lincoln Parish Schools Superintendent Mike Milstead said one of the main uses of the funding locally will be purchasing take-home laptops for each 3-12 grade student in the parish.

“One of our big goals is making sure every child, at least from third grade on and possibly lower, has their own computer to carry back and forth between home and school, kind of like a textbook,” Milstead said.

He said the majority of students in the parish already have access to a computer at school, but most of those computers were designed for use on the school district’s network and aren’t being sent home with students.

The district has not received its CARES Act funding just yet, but Milstead said he hopes to “get in line” for ordering the laptops soon, as other districts seek to do the same thing.

While the computers will be incorporated into students’ normal learning, part of the push for districts across Louisiana to acquire them now comes from a concern that a second wave of COVID-19 later in the year may close schools again. Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield warned in late April that a winter resurgence of the virus may be worse than what the country has seen so far.

“What if this happens again?” Milstead said. “What if we get to start school in August, but you have another outbreak in October and we have to shut down for six weeks?”

In part to prepare for that possibility, Lincoln Parish is hoping to use some of the federal funding to start a more uniform virtual learning program that, when combined with the new laptops, would provide a more consistent distance education experience if schools close again.

“We’re looking for the best possible way to begin a virtual program for all of our students to be taught by our highest performing teachers (when they’re out of school),” Milstead said. “We’re going to have a fourth grade teacher teach math virtually for the whole district, the same lesson she would teach to her own class. And the same could be said for every subject in high school.”

Plans are still in the early stages, with no specific estimate of total cost yet.

Even when school isn’t closed, the virtual program would be used to catch up students who miss school for other reasons.

“We typically have an attendance rate of 95%, which is great,” he said. “But we’ve got 5% of kids at home. What can we do to continue their learning virtually and seamlessly so that they are receiving instruction while they’re away or sick?”

The virtual learning program would get off the ground using CARES Act dollars and would eventually have to be sustained by the district’s own funds. Milstead said he expects federal coronavirus aid will continue for a while beyond the current school year.

A smaller portion of the federal aid will also be used to reimburse the district for extra money already spent during the current school closures, such as paying food services personnel to prepare and serve pickup meals.

As he has maintained since schools first closed their doors, Milstead said he believes educational opportunities in Lincoln Parish will come out the other side of the coronavirus situation stronger than they were before.

“We’re going to have more direct educational minutes to all students even when they’re out,” he said. “If we can keep them in front of a teacher every day, even while they’re out for extenuating circumstances or illness, then nobody gets behind.”