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Schools expect millions in ESSER funding

By Meg Dickens
Staff Writer

Most businesses and organizations have dealt with hardships related to COVID-19 and its effect on operations. As part of the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, schools received and continue to receive a special type of funding through ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund). Johnson County Schools were already approved for around $3.4 million through ESSER 1.0 ($706,024.21) and 2.0 ($2,669,142.26), and now officials report a preliminary approval for just below $6 million for ESSER 3.0 funds.

Elementary and Federal Programs Supervisor Angie Wills gave a presentation during the most recent school board meeting describing what funds for ESSER 1.0 and 2.0 went towards and will be going towards. School officials focused on four main categories with spending: technology, COVID-related supplies, updates, and employment.

Technology
Since the pandemic, virtual learning went from a rarity to commonplace. Although Johnson County is still doing in-person learning, a large outbreak could change that. Even so, schools have been doing virtual learning during snow days and quarantines. Johnson County Schools purchased 748 Chromebooks and 20 iPads for students with ESSER 1.0 funds. Through ESSER 2.0, the school system bought another 900 Chromebooks and 200 laptops for teachers. That way both students and teachers have access to their work no matter their location. Accumulatively, these items add up to around $761,368.

Along with actual device purchasing, officials paid for different virtual learning platforms, device licenses, protective device cases, new servers, a tech management system, and 250 wireless access points. According to Technology Coordinator Robert Sutherland, the school system now has 4,500 internet-connected devices. 

COVID-related supplies 
Health is a priority, especially in light of the global pandemic. Precautions and sanitation rates skyrocketed. COVID requires more advanced cleaning than average. That is why the school system purchased 175 ionization units to clean the air for around $122,000. Schools invested in items like bottled water, hand sanitizer, and additional cleaning supplies, and medical supplies equalling around $22,000. According to Wills, this is far cheaper than normal because the state started supplying medical supplies, saving money for the area.  

Updates
There are positives to most situations. In this case, Johnson County made several updates to local schools. Old water fountains have been replaced with new water bottle refilling stations. SmartBoards with interactive televisions (82) in each classroom. Johnson County bought chairs, racks, and a storage trailer instead of renting all but the latter whenever an event takes place. Additionally, four schools were chosen to receive new awnings. 

Employment
The school system implemented a series of new hires and refunds because of COVID-19. Faculty and staff put in more hours than usual and are getting a $1,000 bonus for their efforts, equaling around $438,722.88. The state of Tennessee gave a two percent raise to BEP-funded workers, and officials are using a portion of funds to keep wages equal by providing raises for other workers ($17,758.50). 

Along with raises and readjustments, COVID-19 meant paying for additional substitute teachers ($27,030). Teachers in quarantine had to have someone to teach their classes. Workers such as bus drivers are getting refunds for their annual physicals, which are usually free through an agreement with ETSU, according to Wills’ presentation. 

Officials felt that new positions were necessary during this time. For this school year, officials hired a Mental Health Counselor, three new custodians, a communication coordinator, and an administration of grant costing about $201,145.96 in wages and benefits out of ESSER 1.0 funds. For the upcoming school year, these positions will be renewed and a new Virtual Learning Coordinator, Career Coach, Tech Assistant, and Special Education Compliance Coordinator will be added to the staff list for around $423,492.04 in wages and benefits from ESSER 2.0 funds.

The money for ESSER 1.0 and 2.0 has already been earmarked for use or used already for the above items and others, including learning loss programs to help students catch up after school and during the summer. What to do with the upcoming $5,996,967.80 from ESSER 3.0 is still in discussion. For more information, watch the recording on the Johnson County Schools TN Video Youtube channel or visit jocoed.net.