Federal funds for a digital divide: Much of $1.9 million allotted to Carter County schools expected to improve technology, connectivity

Michael Smith
Cyclists ride past the Ardmore City Schools administration offices.

With coronavirus concerns leaving questions about how school will return after the summer break, state and local education officials are preparing to improve available technology to students who need it. More than $1.9 million has been allocated for public schools in Carter County as part of emergency federal relief for schools across the country.

The federal funds are part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the largest economic relief bill in the nation’s history, approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March. As part of that federal relief package, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund includes $13 billion for state departments of education across the country.

“Like schools across the nation, Oklahoma educators are considering the transition to next school year and preparing for various options that may be brought by the pandemic,” said Joy Hofmeister, superintendent of the Oklahoma State Department of Education, in a Monday statement.

Nearly $145 million in emergency federal relief is now available to Oklahoma schools to help prepare for the future of education in a world fighting COVID-19. Most of the local funds—$1.2 million—have been allocated to the Ardmore and Dickson school districts and officials from each said technology is a top priority moving forward.

“COVID-19 has pulled the curtain back on the digital divide. With an increasing number of schools moving to blended learning environments, the time is now to close this divide so that every student can be positioned for success,” said Hofmeister.

According to OSDE, allotments are tied to certain Title I funds from Fiscal Year 2020 and amounts are based on a school’s student population that is considered low-income. The funds announced Monday are restricted to a dozen categories directly related to coronavirus response including distance learning technology, summer learning programs, sanitization training and materials and virus response coordination.

Dickson Public Schools expects to upgrade technology with more than $200,000 in allocated funds. Superintendent Jeff Colclasure said the funds will help with expenses incurred by the district as it prepares for the possibility of implementing more distance learning. In particular, Colclasure said improved connectivity would be an important investment.

“We have identified some areas that we think we are going to spend that money on for technology,” he said by phone Monday.

Ardmore City Schools Finance Director Kelly Shannon said in an email Monday the virus-related closure and move to distance learning has already had an impact on the system’s finances, including technology purchases and labor costs for essential staff. With nearly $990,000 now available, Shannon expects to use the federal funds to aid online learning, provide mental health services and purchase cleaning supplies.

Education officials at the district level will have more opportunities for financial assistance in the coming weeks. According to Monday’s statement from OSDE, additional relief funds will soon be made available in the form of incentive grants to further expand districts’ technology.

“We must do everything in our power to ensure that every home in Oklahoma is fully connected so each of our students has the opportunity for academic success in a 21st-century context. That means full connectivity and a device that can accommodate rigorous distance education,” said Hofmeister.

Colclasure said he has not seen much guidance on what those grants will look like but said they will obviously be considered. “We’re always trying to look at how we can maximize what we get and what we can provide to our students,” he said.