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Tennessee Schools Tap CARES Act Money for Technology

The Hamilton County School District hopes to direct its share of federal coronavirus relief funding toward technology for elementary school students and summer programs for its most-at-risk students.

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(TNS) — Hamilton County, Tenn., Schools hopes to direct its share of federal coronavirus relief funding toward technology for elementary school students and summer programs for its most-at-risk students.

The district, the fifth largest school district in the state — Hamilton and Rutherford's school enrollments are often within 1,000 students of each other — will receive $10.8 million through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act.

The state as a whole and local governments scattered across it will receive $2.7 billion, and the Tennessee Department of Education received almost $260 million in emergency school funds.

The money can go toward expenses related to response to the coronavirus pandemic, including technology to support distance learning, summer programming, support for students with special needs, sanitizing buildings and planning for long-term closures and extended distance learning, according to the state education department.

Though Hamilton County Schools hasn't announced an official plan for the district's share, Superintendent Bryan Johnson told the Times Free Press that technology and summer programs, for both students and teachers, are the district's priorities.

"We are going to look at devices for elementary students to ensure that we have coverage for elementary schools in case we need to continue with distance learning in the fall," Johnson said.

Hamilton County's middle and high schools were already "one-to-one," meaning every student had a Chromebook, but that wasn't the case in elementary schools before schools closed in March due to the pandemic. Upper elementary grades might have a class set per classroom, but students in grades K-2 didn't necessarily have access to the same devices.

Johnson said he would like to see Chromebooks available for older elementary school students to take home, and potentially tablets for younger students.

"Our district was positioned well because of the decision of our school board a couple of years ago to invest in student technology," he told the Times Free Press. The board committed $8 million to purchase initial devices for secondary school students, but hasn't allocated recurring budget money toward student technology since.

Targeted summer learning opportunities for students are also part of Johnson's proposed use of the funds — which could include students physically on some campuses, but more than likely would include continued distance or online learning.

"We want to take a targeted approach to summer programming for our students, starting with our students who have been at risk and who have experienced academic challenges," Johnson said.

Summer learning would focus on math, language arts (or reading), science and social studies, but also character development and even digital citizenship, Johnson said, such as teaching students how to use technology and better equip them to maximize its use in case school moves back online again this fall.

Teachers also need extra support, he noted. Some have made huge adjustments to their ways of teaching and might need more training to better equip them for continued remote learning and others might be needed to help close the academic gaps that are only widening since students have been physically out of the classroom for months.

The CARES Act funding could help pay for teacher or employee compensation this summer, as well as be used toward technology purchases, the district's Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg also confirmed.

Districts are expected to receive their share of funding in June, and Hamilton County has not laid out a complete plan for summer programming yet.

©2020 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.