State education leaders plan to use a $10 million federal grant intended for emergency education assistance during the pandemic on professional development for teachers and “innovation grants” for schools to devise ways to close the digital equity gap, according to a preliminary report.

Hawaii was awarded just under $10 million through the “Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund,” part of the CARES Act that allocated a total of $3 billion to state governors to distribute to school districts and higher education institutions most significantly impacted by coronavirus.

According to an initial report, the state intends to spend $5 million on a “Digital Learning Teacher Academy” led by the University of Hawaii to offer “timely, engaging and effective professional development” to public, private and charter school teachers for distance learning.

This mural at Palolo Elementary was funded by a $90,000 Innovation Grant from the DOE in 2018. Hawaii Department of Education

Another $4 million will be set aside for “innovation grants” for schools and complexes — in $100,000 to $600,000 increments – to come up with ways to tackle the digital equity gap, address “capacity building” to provide support to parents who are struggling to help their children with distance learning and figure out social and emotional learning solutions for students.

“Determining the impact of the coronavirus will be a dynamic and ongoing process as the State of Hawaii continues to collect and analyze more data,” the report states.

The $10 million in GEER funding supplements the $43 million in CARES funding the Hawaii DOE received to handle pandemic needs. A recent budget breakdown from the DOE shows it has spent nearly $32 million of that $43 million to date, mostly on summer learning programs and computers for students.

While there are specific criteria for the main CARES funds, local education agencies have “considerable flexibility in determining how best to use GEER funds to prevent, prepare for, or respond to COVID-19,” according to this FAQ produced by the U.S. Department of Education.

As a result, some other states are choosing to steer those funds into the hands of its neediest kids.

In Oklahoma, $8 million of nearly $40 million the state received in GEER funds will be used to provide $1,500 grants to 5,000 Oklahoma families for use on school supplies, technology needs or tutoring.

Hawaii education advocacy group HawaiiKidsCAN is petitioning the governor to use the $10 million in Hawaii GEER funds in a similar way, noting that “very little of this money has been used to directly support Hawaii’s families and students.”

In an email, the group’s executive director, David Miyashiro, said other states are addressing the vast digital divide and other distance learning challenges by “supporting parents financially as they try to bridge the gap and make sure their children do not fall behind in a disrupted school year.”

“Hawaii should do the same,” his email stated.

The petition to date has received slightly more than 200 signatures.

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