ST. GEORGE — In a Utah State Board of Education meeting Thursday, a motion was unanimously passed for Utah to apply for the Rethink K-12 Education Models Grants Program, which could help bridge the gap of tech inequity among Utah students.
This grant competition, initiated by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced on April 27 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has more than $300 million in discretionary grant funds that will be available for states to use to create student-centered and flexible learning opportunities for K-12 and postsecondary learners.
The grants will be funded by the Education Stabilization Funds authorized by the CARES Act.
The competition is open to State education agencies who articulate coronavirus impacts and need in one or more of three areas as defined in the proposed draft:
- Microgrants for families, to ensure access to the technology and educational services needed to advance learning.
- Statewide virtual learning and course access programs, so that students can access a full range of subjects, even those not taught in traditional settings.
- New, innovative designs for providing remote education not yet imagined.
The board is prioritizing microgrants for families to ensure parents have access to high-quality remote learning options, such as needed broadband or devices relevant to their student’s educational needs.
The board voted to move forward in applying for this grant with an intent to apply on Tuesday. The deadline for all applications is June 29.
In a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Education announcing the grant, Devos said the current crisis has only reaffirmed what she has been saying for years: It’s time for leaders and administrators to rethink education in order to meet the needs of the 21st century.
“This is the time for local education leaders to unleash their creativity and ingenuity, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do to provide education freedom and economic opportunity for America’s students,” she said.
During the meeting, Utah State Board of Education Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said everybody is wanting an answer to the big question: Will schools be open in the fall?
“Obviously, it’s every intention to get kiddos back in schools, but it’s also based on a variety of factors,” she said. “So, we’re trying to create a document that can help us be nimble.”
Dickson reiterated the fact that the opening of schools is up to the health departments, but they are working in coordination with the health department and other agencies to compose a document of guidelines for reopening. The board is also discussing the use of funds from the CARES Act for things like thermometers, personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.
“Transportation continues to be a bit of a challenge — when you think about some of those issues of getting a lot of kids on a bus and not being able to do multiple routes,” she said.
She added there has been a rumor that she sent out a letter to teachers saying schools will be digital-only next year.
“That’s not true,” she said. “I haven’t sent out any letter.”
Despite Gov. Gary Herbert announcing Thursday morning that a majority of the state, including Southern Utah counties, will be lowered to a yellow phase on Saturday, all Utah K-12 schools will still remain closed through the end of the school year.
A document composed by Jill Curry, program analyst for the board, showed the impacts of coronavirus on counties and looked at several factors. For Washington County, 12.6% of the population did not have a broadband internet subscription, and 11.1% of children live in poverty. For Iron County, 12.7% did not have a broadband internet subscription and 15.8% of children are reported as living in poverty.
If Utah is awarded the grant, some of the money could be used to fill the gaps of tech inequity, so students have the materials required to advance learning.
Whether or not there will be any major structural changes for Washington County K-12 students still remains unclear as there remains a level of uncertainty in how the months ahead will unfold.
Looking toward fall, district communications director Steven Dunham told St. George News they are planning to start in class and anticipate that the health department will allow students back in school. At the same time, the district is also looking at what worked well online and how they might implement a social distancing structure in the classroom.
“It’s going to be a very busy summer for us as we look at how we can make this work for all the students we serve here in Washington County.”
He said the district is also considering how to pull together their best and brightest teachers in each of the disciplines to create online curriculum for the teachers in order to augment the online learning in the case of schools being or remaining shutdown.