While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed nearly all aspects of life, it has had a radical impact on the way students are learning.

State and local officials have shifted to remote and hybrid learning to keep students and educators safe. In a recent report, the Pew Charitable Trusts highlighted how states and local governments have used some of the $150 billion provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – passed by Congress and signed into law in March 2020 – to meet the changing needs of both students and educators.

Pew noted that currently 15 million to 16 million elementary and secondary students lack adequate internet access or digital devices at home to support online learning. The digital divide most seriously impacts low-income and rural households. States across the county have turned to CARES Act funding to help schools meet both K-12 and higher education students’ needs in a variety of ways.

Here are some of the ways states are using CARES Act funding to enable safe and effective learning during the pandemic – and how some of the investments will help students and educators even when the pandemic is over.

Expanding Broadband Access and Providing Digital Devices

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) provided 471 Local Education Agencies (LEAs) with $80.1 million in funding as part of the CARES Act. The funding will help the 1.2 million students doing distance learning and 528,000 doing hybrid learning. LEAs will be able to purchase new devices for students and staff and expand Internet connectivity. Given that many schools made the shift to distance learning last spring, LEAs can also submit for reimbursement for purchases made since March 13, 2020.

In recognition that the digital divide most impacts rural and low-income students, Pritzker specifically targeted the “highest-need” LEAs in Illinois, meaning school districts, state-authorized charter schools, university lab schools, and alternative and safe school programs administered by Regional Offices of Education with an Evidence-Based Funding Final Percent of Adequacy of 70 percent or lower in fiscal year 2020 or FY 2021.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer dedicated $65 million funding to Michigan K-12 school districts and higher education institutions to fund, among other matters, the technology needed to engage in remote or hybrid learning. With the funding, education IT professionals will be able to purchase new technology and solutions to meet the needs of students and teachers during the upcoming school year, including technology to increase broadband connectivity, remote learning materials and training, new curriculum designed for remote learning, among other items.

When distributing the funding, the state’s framework looks at the number of students in high-need student groups in a district. Additionally, districts will receive funding based on their numbers of economically disadvantaged students, special education students, and English language learners. Whitmer’s office noted that to be eligible for funding, the school district’s concentration of economically disadvantaged pupils, compared to total district enrollment, must exceed 50 percent.

After facing a massive shortage of laptop computers in the lead-up to the 2021 school year, the Paterson School District, N.J. was able to use $3.4 million in CARES Act funding to purchase nearly 14,000 laptops. Before receiving the devices, up to 11,000 Paterson students were facing the possibility of starting the school year without a school-provided device – a serious issue given that the school district had approved all-remote learning.

Modernizing Education Technology

The Alabama Community College System (ACCS) used CARES Act funding to migrate all of its colleges to a cloud-based learning management system (LMS). With the migration to a new LMS, ACCS is looking to streamline the student experience for the more than 170,000 students across its 24 community and technical colleges. The new LMS ecosystem will include data analytics, virtual classrooms, an IT help desk, retention coaching, and professional development software.

Overhauling Learning Spaces

When New Mexico State University (NMSU) students returned for classes this fall, whether they were in-person or online, their classrooms looked quite different than when they left school last spring. While the motivator behind the changes is stemming from the spread of COVID-19, the upgrades will benefit students long after the pandemic is over. NMSU IT staff outfitted classrooms and lecture halls with new technology that enables simultaneous in-person and remote learning experiences.

One of the major changes was improvements to existing microphone systems and the deployment of new cameras. NMSU’s Classroom Technology and AV Services, a division of NMSU’s Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), has overhauled 45 classrooms to feature four strategically placed ceiling microphones and a high-definition, remote-controlled camera with pan, tilt, and zoom capabilities that instructors will use to transmit classes online video-conferencing services.

Garrett College in Maryland has been able to take advantage of funding available from the CARES Act to create state-of-the-art video conferencing systems in 10 classrooms ahead of the fall semester.

“The [new technology] gives students flexibility in their learning – not only in this uncertain pandemic time but also looking to the future,” said Lucy Manley, the associate dean of academic affairs. “GC students are parents, full-time employees, and involved in a variety of campus and community activities. Flexible learning gives students multiple options to attend class and interact with their professors and classmates.”

To bring 3,000 students back to campus for both in-person and online classes, Clarkson University in New York state relied on technology. The school turned to its Office of Information Technology (OIT) and engineers from its Center for Air and Aquatic Resources, Engineering Science (CARES). OIT staff worked quickly to implement new technology into existing classrooms and to create new classrooms in non-traditional spaces like dining halls and larger multipurpose areas that could accommodate social distancing requirements.

“Our teams touched a total of 88 classrooms to ensure that every space is now equipped with a pen-touch display, webcam, microphone, and full lecture capture capabilities,” says CIO Joshua Fiske. “Additionally, for faculty who are teaching online, we created a loaner pool of technology, which includes 100 pen-touch enabled 2-in-1 laptops, 50 standalone webcams, and 50 high-quality headphones and microphones.”

Investing in New Ways to Educate Students

Michigan’s public television stations have partnered with educators and community leaders to create the Michigan Learning Channel. The channel, which is organized by Detroit Public Television (DPTV), will deliver instructional content programming to students, parents, and teachers, using a wide variety of media platforms, including a system of dedicated broadcast channels. The Michigan Learning Channel, slated to being operation in early January 2021, will begin with Pre-K through 3rd grade content and will quickly expand to grades 4 through 12.

Jennings County School Corporation (JCSC) in Indiana and the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations (IPBS) are using $1.38 in funding to expand distance learning to 1,200 students who have little or no access to reliable broadband. As part of the partnership, IPBS will provide datacasting technology, which overcomes the lack of internet access by sending computer-based files over a television broadcast signal. Jennings County, which is a predominantly rural county in southeastern Indiana, has a large number of students without Internet access.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs