Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Oct. 8 announced a new allocation of more than $220 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to help K-12 public schools in the commonwealth with $508,410 going to Greene County Public Schools (GCPS).
The funds will support COVID-19 preparedness and response measures for the 2020-2021 school year including testing supplies, personal protective equipment, sanitization and technology for distance learning. The allocation amounts were calculated based on a formula of $175 per pupil based on fall enrollment, with a minimum of $100,000 going to each of the 132 public school districts in the state.
“The Coronavirus Relief Funds will be incredibly helpful in covering the numerous costs that we have incurred during the past several months,” said Superintendent Dr. Andrea Whitmarsh on Monday. “The unanticipated expenses the school system has faced include items such as costs related to meals for the children of our community, technology and instructional needs, signage, and cleaning supplies as well as training and protective equipment.”
The school division had previously requested help from the Greene County Board of Supervisors in meeting some of the funding needs incurred since March, but the supervisors did not allocate new funding to the school system.
“Students, teachers, principals and parents are going to great lengths to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic amid a new school year, and we must do everything we can to support them,” Northam said in a press release Oct. 8. “This additional $220 million in federal funding will give our schools the resources they need to continue operating and provide Virginians with a world-class education, whether safely in person or remotely from home.”
GCPS began the fall semester on Tuesday, Sept. 8 with 41% of students all-virtual and the remainder on a hybrid plan.
“Our school system has been completely redesigned since March to ensure everyone has the option to attend school virtually and those who choose to come to school are in a safe and healthy environment with mitigation strategies in place,” Whitmarsh said. “This has been costly, and we are incredibly appreciative of this support from the state.”
The latest distribution supplements $238.6 million provided to Virginia from the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief (ESSER) Fund in May and $66.8 million through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund in June.
The question of whether federal CARES Act dollars can be used to help solve broadband issues in rural counties such as Greene is ongoing, according to Whitmarsh.
“I wish there was a pot of money where we could start a long-term project related to broadband, but I think a lot of these things are temporary measures, which is unfortunate in a community like ours that lacks internet access,” she said.
The funding can, however, be used to assist in distance learning technology needs such as purchasing mobile hotspots and providing educators and students with needed devices to access their virtual school programs.
“As we move forward, we start to know more about other costs that are going to come up that were not initially anticipated … something that’s having to be done that wouldn’t have been done in a normal year,” Whitmarsh said. “We didn’t anticipate any of this … signage and training our nurses and protective equipment … room dividers and cleaning supplies and cleaning equipment and tissues and hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, so just a lot of things we hadn’t anticipated.”
Unlike the previous funds, the latest CARES Act dollars must be spent by the end of December and it can cover costs incurred since March 1.
“There are a lot of things that this money can be used for,” Whitmarsh said. “We will have no issues utilizing all of it by the end of December because we can go back to March and we’ve already incurred well over a half-million dollars in expenses.”
Northam was one of the first governors in the country to close schools for in-person instruction when COVID-19 began to spread quickly during the 2020 spring semester. Virginia school divisions have been working overtime to adapt for the fall semester, and many continue to face challenges associated with maintaining public health protocols and increased technology needs. In June, the commonwealth provided guidance for the phased reopening of PreK-12 schools, including guidelines for safely resuming in-person instruction and school activities.
“Virginia’s teachers are heroes, and they are doing an incredible job in the midst of this pandemic,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni in a press release. “This funding will help ensure the safety of students, families, and teaching staff, all while providing critical support for our most at-risk students.”
Greene County Public Schools started the school year with 1,174 students 100% virtual and 1,744 attending in person. Middle and high school students attend two days per week on the hybrid plan.
“We’ve accomplished a lot (since March) and we’re proud of what we’ve done, but we have needed the support financially, so we’re pretty happy about this,” Whitmarsh said. “I’m just very grateful.”
The school board was scheduled to meet Oct. 14 to review first semester progress on the Return to Learn plan, after press time.
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