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If schools close again, a new grant will help them be better prepared for online learning

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 6/23/2020 Arika Herron, Indianapolis Star
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As schools prepare to reopen classrooms in the fall, many are planning for continued online learning – in the event that some students aren’t ready to return to in-person instruction or if the coronavirus pandemic forces school buildings to close again.

Now, they can apply for a piece of the $61.6 million in federal CARES Act funds awarded to Gov. Eric Holcomb and the state of Indiana. Holcomb’s office is making the federal dollars distributed to states to help schools cope with the impact of the novel coronavirus available through a competitive grant process and will award dollars to districts that show the greatest need and whose projects work to close gaps in access and quality of remote learning opportunities.

a young boy using a laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Franklin Township students Wilem and Hazel Mitchell do eLearning. © Provided by Tammi Mitchell Franklin Township students Wilem and Hazel Mitchell do eLearning.

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“Teachers, administrators and superintendents have faced this pandemic with innovative solutions to ensure our students continue to receive the best education possible,” Holcomb said in a news release Monday. “Our Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds will help meet technology needs and grow educator development while working to reduce the disparities between districts.”

Eric Holcomb wearing glasses and looking at the camera: Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks to the media and others present at the Indiana Statehouse during a press conference to give an update on COVID-19 and its impact on Indiana on Monday, March 16, 2020. © Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks to the media and others present at the Indiana Statehouse during a press conference to give an update on COVID-19 and its impact on Indiana on Monday, March 16, 2020.

According to data from an annual technology survey of schools, about half of districts are not yet “one-to-one,” meaning they don’t have a digital device for every student. According to the survey data, the state would need to purchase about 200,000 laptops or other devices to fill in the gap – although the number is probably lower, as districts have likely increased their number of devices in the last year.

At $350 each, which is roughly what Lawrence Township Schools paid for a recent order of Google Chromebooks, it would cost the state around $80 million to close the device gap.

Some districts have already forged ahead with plans to close the device gap on their own. Indianapolis Public Schools, which is not yet one-to-one, distributed laptops to all high school students in the spring to help them adjust to remote learning. The district plans to purchase enough digital devices to have one for every student before classes resume in August. It estimates that around one-third of the districts families don’t have high-quality internet access at home and many don’t have enough digital devices for their children to complete their school work.

A group of Indianapolis-area philanthropies in April announced the creation of a $2.6 million fund to support eLearning efforts in all of Marion County’s public schools. Similar to what the state is rolling out with the CARES funds, the Marion County effort is putting funds toward purchasing more digital devices and mobile hotspots to provide internet access. It may also go toward professional development for teachers, many of whom conducted wide-scale remote teaching for the first time when schools closed in mid-March.

Devices are just one of the eligible expenditures for the state’s GEER program.

Even with a device, some families still lack home internet access.

Schools can apply to cover the costs of improving internet connectivity through initiatives such as the purchase of mobile hotspots or community-based projects to improve internet access more broadly.

The grants are available for traditional K-12 public school districts, charter schools, private schools, higher education institutions and other education-related entities.

Colleges and universities may also apply for grants to offer professional development targeted at improving educators’ effectiveness in remote learning, paired with K-12 schools.

There is no minimum or maximum threshold on project costs. Holcomb said the state expects to award “dozens of grants.”

Schools can apply online through July 17. It’s unclear when the grants will be awarded or how quickly the funds will be distributed. The governor’s office said that the goal is to distribute funds as quickly as possible but an exact timeline will depend on how many applications are received. Schools are scheduled to start back up in late July through early August.

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Call IndyStar education reporter Arika Herron at 317-201-5620 or email her at Arika.Herron@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: If schools close again, a new grant will help them be better prepared for online learning

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