As North Carolina education officials plan for how to spend the millions of dollars they expect to receive in state and federal aid, two related needs are rising to the top: computers and internet connection.
Federal Aid On Its Way
North Carolina public schools are expected to receive $390 million in federal aid allocated in the CARES Act to help cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
"There are lots of students in our state who face a very, very real challenge of connecting to remote learning," said North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson. "It would be very impactful to use these federal funds to help close those gaps."
About 90% of that federal aid will flow directly to school districts to decide how to spend. The money can support expenses related to the pandemic — including costs for meal distribution, cleaning school buildings and helping to ease the ongoing transition to remote learning.
"We will be strongly encouraging them to use it to prepare for remote learning for the foreseeable future," Johnson said.
The Department of Public Instruction will manage up to 10% of the federal aid package for education. Johnson said the department could direct those funds, and use the purshasing power of the state, to help rural school districts that are struggling with access to the internet and computer devices.
One possible solution involves putting internet hotspots on buses and parking them in areas where students can gather to do their schoolwork, something some North Carolina schools are already trying.
State Aid For Education
Computers are also the top priority as education leaders make their plea for state aid.
Earlier this week the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a progressive advocacy organization, wrote a letter to Johnson urging for upcoming aid to be used to remove obstacles for disadvantaged students, including directly purchasing computers for students who need them.
In fact, devices were the biggest line item in a funding request State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis brought before a legislative committee Thursday. The Board of Education's wishlist includes nearly $100 million to purchase Chromebooks for students and to upgrade some teachers' devices. That figure was based on a survey DPI conducted to tally school districts' needs.
Leaders in the General Assembly are expected to begin discussing dollar amounts for a relief package next week, amid expectations that tax revenue will also take a major hit from the pandemic.