PPS receives grant to boost WiFi hotspots for students with low access

Pawhuska Public Schools is getting a financial boost to help with its back to school preparation efforts.

On July 1, the state Department of Education and the governor’s office announced the awarding of $16 million in federal grants to 150 school districts across Oklahoma for the 2020-2021 school year for emergency needs directly connected to the ongoing pandemic.  

Among the recipients is Pawhuska Public Schools, which will get $24,500 to equip some of its buses and other district-owned vehicles with WiFi. Should the coronavirus force the district to have to go to all distance learning again during the upcoming school year, those vehicles will be deployed to neighborhoods in and around Pawhuska where multiple families do not have reliable internet access.

“That was our biggest hurdle in the spring,” Pawhuska Superintendent David Cash said. “We had about 50 families that just didn’t have access to anything. It put our teachers in a tough spot too.”

To figure out where the buses are needed most, Cash said the district would be following up with families in the fall to determine which ones still do not have reliable internet access. The district also has mobile hot spots available to check out should a student need internet access and live in an area not served by one of the buses.

“We are ready to be targeted to do whatever we need to do,” Cash said.

The funding for the competitive grants consisted of $8 million from the Oklahoma State Department of Education set-aside in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and $8 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund through the U.S. Department of Education.

Both ESSER and GEER are components of the federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Under the CARES Act, the OSDE funds must meet “emergency needs” of districts in response to COVID-19, while GEER dollars expended to schools must be to those “most significantly impacted by coronavirus.”

As part of the application process, districts had to identify at least one of five priority areas students were impacted that they would use grant funds to address. Those areas include expanding internet connectivity for students, mental health supports for students, reading instruction training for elementary school teachers, distance learning software platforms and compensatory services for at-risk students.

“Our districts indicated an urgent need for funds dedicated to connectivity and digital learning materials, and for good reason,” State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said. “The pandemic has created a clarion call throughout the state and nation to bridge the digital divide.

“It is imperative that districts be equipped to take swift and decisive action to ensure all kids are learning amid a global pandemic, including in virtual or blended environments that best meet local context and the needs of families.”

Applications were reviewed and awarded within five categories based on student enrollment. Individual awards to districts and charter schools ranged from $13,596 to $500,000.  

Other school districts in and around Osage County receiving grant funds include Avant, Bartlesville, Ponca City and Tulsa.