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Local school districts to receive shares of $100 million in COVID response grants

Most local school districts received good news this week with approval of federal grants aimed at ensuring equal access to remote learning, high-quality curriculum, safe reopening of schools and social and emotional support for teachers and students.

Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday that the state has received $111 million in federal coronavirus relief aid for the state's school districts, which will be used to support continued distance learning and address educational disruptions due to the global pandemic. The state will reserve $11.1 million for state-level use and will distribute $99.9 million to districts based on 83% of their federal Title 1 grants — allocated for low-income students.

Norwich and New London each will receive more than $1.9 million, with Groton slated to receive $686,882, Stonington $280,435, Montville $269,037 and Waterford $261,815. At the opposite end, North Stonington will receive $37,473, and Salem, $25,219.

The funding was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Security, or CARES, Act. According to Lamont's news release, the federal government allows for "significant flexibility" in how the state and local districts spend the money.

State Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona sent a letter to superintendents this week outlining areas where the new grant money can be spent and announcing the state will provide applications for districts to submit their grant spending plans.

State priorities include: ensuring all students have access to technology and internet connections, ensuring districts have high-quality curriculum for all students, including students with disabilities, addressing learning gaps, safe school reopening and social and emotional support for educators and students.

Norwich Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said the district already has spent its own money in the top priority areas outlined by the state. Norwich has purchased computer connectivity and communication programs "to reach and teach every learner," programs to complement Google Classroom to increase accessibility to high-quality curriculum and programs to communicate with parents.

"We plan to invest more in devices and programming and professional development for teachers in digital delivery of curriculum," Stringfellow said. "In our reopen (Norwich Public Schools) planning we know that we will need to support students in ways that we have not experienced before. We know students have experienced trauma and seclusion, and we are planning to fully support their social emotional learning needs."

New London school officials did not respond to questions about the use of the funding. Board of Education member Jefferey Hart, chairman of the finance committee, said he expects school officials to report on the grant at a committee meeting next week.

Groton Superintendent Michael Graner said a top priority is to ensure all children have appropriate technology. The district wants all kindergarten and first-grade students to have a tablet and all students in the second through 12th grades to have a Chromebook. The district is purchasing some new Chromebooks to replace older ones and will support internet connectivity for students.

Groton is working to improve software to support the strongest possible distance learning program, especially for students with disabilities and younger children. Graner said the district expects some learning gaps when students return, so it plans to expand tutoring hours and perhaps offer an extended day program to address learning gaps.

Groton is looking at hiring social workers to support students who have been traumatized by the pandemic experience, Graner said. The district anticipates schools will need to practice social distancing, but guidance on reopening is a long way off and may change, he said.

"We're just trying to put together as many alternate plans as possible so we can adjust to the situation as it emerges," Graner said.

Montville Superintendent Laurie Pallin said it's "extremely difficult" to know whether the new grant would cover all additional expenses the district has incurred.

"We don't know what the summer and fall will look like," she said, "and because we haven't yet been able to assess our students' learning during the last third of this year to determine the recovery work which will be necessary. We don't know what our summer programming will look like yet because we don't know if we will be meeting in person or virtually."

Another cost will hit all districts when temporary offers of free service by distance learning companies and internet access companies expire. Districts might need to purchase internet hot spot devices for students, Pallin said.

Pallin listed several unknowns about the potential for schools reopening in fall, including whether staff and students must wear masks all day, whether cafeterias will be open and how much custodial staff will be needed. Other high-cost questions would be whether social distancing will be required on school buses and in classroom seating.

Waterford Superintendent Thomas Giard said his district is "deeply grateful" for the federal grants. "Come August, our students will have been out of schools for six months," he said. "That challenge comes with incredible needs. This supplemental funding will help us address those COVID-19 specific needs that are not currently part of Waterford's operating budget."

Ledyard Superintendent Jay Hartling said the Board of Education will have to finalize the plan to use the $207,514, but he said it would be looking into remediation and intervention programs to keep students on track to graduate and to help those who have fallen behind during distance learning. Specific spending will depend on emergent student needs and state mandates that come out between now and then.

Hartling said the money is a "godsend" because it gives the district a little flexibility to adapt to whatever might happen in the fall. But it's difficult to prepare for a "known unknown" and come up with a solid plan when guidance from the state changes so quickly.

Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said he will wait to see the state application process before proposing specific uses for the $63,532 the town is slated to receive.

"We are looking at preserving staff to assist with restart and gap recovery, important technology needs, assure high quality curriculum implementation, and student/staff software upgrades," he said.

State Education Commissioner Cardona said the department will expedite the approval process for districts' plans to use the federal funding. He said state officials are aware that the COVID-19 school closures, remote learning and the economic impact of the pandemic have affected all students, especially low-income, special needs and English learning students.

"Now more than ever, we remain committed to breaking down the barriers that result in a lack of equitable access to technology, connectivity, and high quality learning materials," Cardona said in the governor's news release. "We acknowledge districts are expending considerable resources as they navigate these uncharted waters."

Day Staff Writers Amanda Hutchinson, Sten Spinella, Kim Drelich and Greg Smith contributed to this report.


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