The Ally: August 2020 – Kelly Butler

Kelly Butler
Barksdale Reading Institute

Education Funders Take the Lead in Designing the State’s Digital Learning Plan

“Back to school” has taken on a whole new meaning as education systems around the globe prepare for teaching and learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like students everywhere, Mississippi children are depending on digital devices to connect to “school” as never before. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law in March, provided $2.2 trillion to states, a portion of which was earmarked for state education agencies and school districts. Mississippi’s State Department of Education received $169.9 million–ninety percent (90%) earmarked as a straight pass through to districts, 9.5% for planning and technical support, and .5% for administrative costs.

When schools closed this spring the disparities in connectivity for virtual learning and the supply of devices for every child were laid bare. Many households shared a single device, some had no device at all. Rural parts of the state lacked reliable access to the internet.
The bulk of funds districts received from CARES education money went to addressing the CDC guidelines for school cleanings and equipment to support social distancing. Limited provisions were available for closing the digital divide.
The Education Affinity Group (EAG) of the Alliance moved quickly to identify talent who could help the Mississippi Department of Education in designing a comprehensive Digital Learning Plan. Paige Johnson, President of EdCatalyst, a nationally recognized firm that specializes in leveraging leading edge technology to create world-class learning solutions for districts and states was retained to build a cost-model for the digital plan.

EAG’s primary goal was to ensure equity of resources so that students in under-resourced districts and remote areas of the state would have the same level of connectivity and a device for every student. The plan included not just connectivity and devices, but funds for high quality materials for on-line learning, professional development to assist educators in transitioning to virtual teaching, support for parents, internet security, and links for undergirding the state’s telehealth system to address the social/emotional needs of families.

The recent passage of Senate Bill 3044 put into place most of these elements. The EAG continues to work with the MDE and the Lt. Governor’s Office to ensure the goal of equity is realized for Mississippi families with children.