Federal COVID-19 response for schools

By Leah Fliter, lfliter@kasb.org

In late March Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that funnels $13.5 billion to states for elementary and secondary education.

At least 90 percent of those funds must support local school district coronavirus-response activities, such as planning and coordinating long-term school closures; purchasing educational technology to support online learning for all students; and additional activities authorized by federal elementary and secondary education laws.

The law also includes a separate $25 million rural development line item that is pegged for distance learning.

Kansas will receive $84 million of the CARES Act funding for K-12 schools. Kansas State Department of Education officials say about $74 million will be distributed through the Title 1 formula and the final $10 million should go to special education.

To receive its share of the CARES funding, Kansas must provide K-12 education funding in Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022 of (at least) the average of the past three years’ levels. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is authorized to waive that requirement upon request from the state. School districts must also guarantee, to the extent practicable, that they will pay their employees and contractors during the period of disruption attributed to the coronavirus.

Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER)

In addition to the $13.5 billion grants to states, governors in each state will receive a share of $3 billion for emergency support for school districts that have been most significantly affected by the coronavirus pandemic to continue to provide educational services to their students and to support on-going operations. Gov. Laura Kelly is authorized to send $26 million to public and private K-12 schools, postsecondary institutions, and other education-related organizations. Kelly’s office has not yet announced how those funds will be distributed.

Advocates request additional federal funds for IDEA, internet access

While the CARES Act was being developed in Congress, KASB, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) and others requested Congress include additional funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and for improved home internet access for students.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The IDEA governs special education. When the law was enacted in the 1970s, Congress pledged to pay 40 percent of a school district’s excess costs of educating students with disabilities. (In Kansas, gifted students are also served by special education teachers.) The actual federal reimbursement level has historically hovered in the mid-teens and is currently at about 13 percent. KASB and NSBA continue to press Congress to fully fund IDEA or provide a minimum next school year of $13 billion, to compensate for additional current expenses associated with online learning and with anticipated new obligations and expenses when schools re-open.

The additional IDEA funding request was not included in the CARES Act. Advocates are pushing for it to be included in a future federal stimulus bill.

Broadband internet access for students

Kansas school buildings have been closed since March 17 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but learning continues in the state’s 286 public school districts. Districts’ Continuous Learning Plans commonly involve a hybrid of take-home packets and online learning that depends on internet access.

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates 14 percent of school-aged children didn’t have home internet access in 2017 and Kansas was slightly below that national rate; based on those statistics, 70,000 Kansas K-12 students lack access. The gap between internet “haves” and “have-nots” (“the homework gap”) is particularly acute in rural areas without coverage or in high-poverty areas where families can’t afford service.

With schools, public libraries, universities, churches, and other internet-equipped public buildings also closed, the homework gap is even wider for students who do not have internet access at home.

Education advocacy organizations leaders nationwide, including KASB President Shannon Kimball, repeatedly asked Congress for $2 billion in federal funding and to authorize the Federal

Communications Commission (FCC) to use its authority to help schools purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and connected devices for their students without internet access at home. Advocates said the money could be funneled through the existing ERate program that provides broadband internet access to schools and libraries. That request was not fulfilled in the CARES Act.

In late April, the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Education they were encouraging states to utilize the CARES Act funding to support online learning during the pandemic.

Congress responded, however, with the bipartisan introduction of the Emergency Educational Connections Act in both chambers.

The Senate version of the bill provides $4 billion for home internet access; double the amount repeatedly requested by KASB, NSBA and other school leaders. The House version provides $2 billion. NSBA and the broad coalition of educational advocates working to close the homework gap now support the $4 billion figure because of anticipated increased costs associated with summer learning and the possibility of a return to online learning if the virus resurfaces in the fall.

The Emergency Educational Connections Act also gives the FCC the authority to administer the funds through the ERate program.

HEROES Act

On May 15, the U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R 6800, the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act that would provide about $60 billion for K-12 education. The funding would be distributed according to the Title I formula.

The bill would also establish a $1.5 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund at the Federal Communications Commission.

Senate Republicans immediately expressed opposition to H.R. 6800, stating Congress should assess the impact of the CARES Act before passing an additional stimulus bill. Should the HEROES Act pass Congress it’s likely the final version of the legislation will differ substantially from the House version.

KASB is monitoring the legislation and will report additional information when it becomes available.

Kansans should contact a Kansan at the FCC

FCC Chairman and Parsons, Kansas, native Ajit Pai said in April the FCC has made “substantial progress” over the past several years to expand broadband internet access and has worked “aggressively” recently to relax rules against providers donating and schools accepting the donation of connectivity technology.

He declined to support using FCC-administered ERate funds to help schools and students purchase WiFi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices to enable students to learn at home during the pandemic, saying federal law restricts those purchases to classroom use.

Pai on April 23 stated he was working with the U.S. Department of Education and Congress on a “Remote Learning Initiative” that would be announced “soon.” He said the initiative should be administered separately from the ERate program because he does not want the initiative to face “administrative burden and delay.”

Pai asked educators to tweet or email him with their ideas on closing the homework gap. His Twitter handle is @AjitPaiFCC; his email address is Ajit.Pai@fcc.gov.

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