Lawmakers updated on how schools are spending virus relief funds

  • KISHIMOTO

Hawaii schools have received millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds during the COVID-19 pandemic, and state lawmakers on Tuesday were briefed about how those funds have so far been used.

State Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, other DOE administrators and Yvonne Lau, interim executive director for the state Public Charter School Commission, spoke during an informational briefing of the House Lower and Higher Education Committee.

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According to written answers provided to the committee by the state Department of Education prior to the meeting, the DOE received $31 million for devices and connectivity from the state through its Coronavirus Relief Fund.

The department also received $43.4 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to help respond to COVID-related issues.

“So with an equity lens for our most vulnerable learners, the department targeted 10 priority areas aligned with allowable uses for ESSER (funds),” Kishimoto said. “… We’ve been allocating these funds to respond to critical unmet needs as they have arisen.”

The 10 priority areas include summer learning, career and technical education, devices for learning, connectivity, distance learning platforms and training, impact services for students with disabilities, equitable services, health and safety and transition safety nets.

“Much of the funds used to address COVID-19 related issues were used for devices and connectivity for our students and teachers, personal protective equipment … and supplies for cleaning and disinfecting,” Kishimoto said. “That was the driving priority for those funds.”

According to the DOE, $18.02 million of the ESSER funds were allocated for the purchase of devices, $16.03 million of which has already been spent.

The DOE also allocated $11 million of the CRF funds to purchase devices, $8.1 million of which has already been expended.

Another $9.05 million in ESSER funds were allocated to help provide better internet connectivity.

“Purchases were focused on hot spots with one-year unlimited data plans and content filtering,” the DOE wrote in its response to questions from the committee.

To date, 17,347 mobile hot spots have been purchased by the department and delivered to complex areas and schools statewide.

Additionally, Kishimoto said that since Sept. 30, she’s approved another $1.9 million of ESSER funds to be used for air purifiers in response to new federal considerations regarding ventilation.

In response to a question about whether federal relief money would reach Hawaii’s charter schools, Lau told the House committee that the organization is awaiting word from the DOE about how to access the $31 million allocation for distance learning.

Lau said a survey of charter schools found that about 600 Wi-Fi hot spots and a little more than 2,600 laptops, tablets or Chromebooks are still needed.

“At this point, we’re not aware of any additional federal emergency funding that is coming our way,” Lau said.

However, the DOE said charter schools received nearly $2.1 million in federal money based on the amount of ESSER funds awarded to the department.

While that allocation was not made using ESSER funds because of reporting requirements that would have created “significant administrative burden and exposure for noncompliance,” other federal funds were instead allocated to charter schools.

Another $8 million of the ESSER funds have been reserved for special education services and will benefit DOE and charter school students.

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Tuesday’s briefing, which lasted more than 90 minutes, also addressed distance learning and other education matters.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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