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Georgia awarded $18.6 million federal grant to enhance online learning

An $18.6 million grant from the federal government to improve virtual instruction will help in building "a more personalized and connected educational system, and continuing to leverage virtual learning more effectively, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and long-term,” said State School Superintendent Richard Woods Thursday.
An $18.6 million grant from the federal government to improve virtual instruction will help in building "a more personalized and connected educational system, and continuing to leverage virtual learning more effectively, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and long-term,” said State School Superintendent Richard Woods Thursday.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The Georgia Department of Education won an $18.6 million federal grant to expand virtual and personalized learning.

Georgia was among 11 states to receive a Rethink K-12 Education Models grant from the U.S. Department of Education and will receive $18,594,304. States’ awards ranged from $6 million to $20 million. States with the highest coronavirus burden were prioritized by the federal agency.

Internet challenges meant many Georgia students couldn’t access online platforms to continue classes once the pandemic shuttered schools in March. The overnight shift to digital learning revealed disparities in broadband internet access for students in rural Georgia, many of whom relied on teacher-provided paper packets to keep up.

Worst hit was South Georgia, where many residents rely on slow satellite service or spotty cellphone signals. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 American Community Survey showed only nine states had more households than Georgia without any internet service, including no dial-up, fixed broadband or mobile-only.

Among the information that Georgia DOE provided in its grant application: Georgia has 13.2% of the population without broadband access. Almost 1 in 5 (19.50%) of Georgia’s students (ages 5-17) live in poverty. About 1 in 4 students (26.63%) attend school in rural districts.

Georgia will use the three-year grant to improve the professional learning for school leaders and educators in personalized learning and virtual instruction, expand student connectivity, and improve the infrastructure of — and expand access to — the Georgia Virtual School, a virtual supplemental learning program run by DOE that offers more than 130 courses for students in grades 6-12.

Personalized learning — tailoring students’ educational experience to their talents, interests and needs — has become a priority of DOE. The grant will help Georgia move forward by underwriting training for district and school leaders on the concept and on how to engage parents who can be skeptical, said Caitlin McMunn Dooley, DOE deputy superintendent of teaching and learning.

“Personalized learning is not a bunch of kids hooked into a computer for many hours,” Dooley said. “It could just as easily be learning physics on a baseball field or biology in your backyard. It is about connecting and making relevant what we want kids to learn and connecting that curriculum and those standards to what kids are interested in and what our workforce really demands.”

In the announcement Wednesday of grant recipients, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said, “If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that the antiquated one-size-fits-all approach to education is no longer tenable and education going forward must be more adaptable and student-centered.”

“In Georgia, we are committed to building a more personalized and connected educational system, and continuing to leverage virtual learning more effectively, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and long-term,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said. “These funds will help us build that system and expand personalized learning opportunities for our students.”

On Thursday, Woods joined Gov. Brian Kemp in announcing Georgia will also dedicate $6 million of its CARES Act funding to purchase equipment for local school systems to improve connectivity options for students. The funding will go to buying Wi-Fi transmitters for school buses that can travel where needed and other connectivity solutions.

“While the internet access gap has come into sharper focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, securing connectivity for all of Georgia’s students is a long-term need,” said Kemp in a statement. “This is a major step to address the gap for this school year so that all Georgia’s children have access to learning opportunities in and out of school.”