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Coronavirus upended SC schools. $15 million in new federal aid aims to help.

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Chromebooks sit ready and waiting for students at Matilda F. Dunston Elementary School on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in North Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

After South Carolina schools closed in mid-March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, teachers and parents struggled with the transition to online learning.

But the obstacles to long-distance instruction proved to be even greater for students in rural areas who were unable to access course materials due to a lack of access to reliable internet.

A new federal grant aims to support new, innovative ways to ensure students have access to quality educational content during the pandemic.

The S.C. Department of Education was awarded more than $15 million in coronavirus aid to help K through 12 students recover from the disruption caused by COVID-19.

The funding, authorized via the Rethink K-12 Education Grant program from the U.S. Department of Education, was set aside by Congress via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to provide grants to states with the "highest coronavirus burden," officials announced last week.

More than $180 million was awarded to 11 states across the country.

In South Carolina, the major purpose of the grant is two-fold: To create a robust, high-quality virtual curriculum available to any interested public, private or home-school students and to use new, innovative technology to ensure that every student can access these materials, even if they don’t have access to the internet in their home.

"We want to make sure that all kids have access to really good, high-quality content and all teachers have access to really good high-quality content," said Bradley Mitchell, director of the office of virtual education at the state’s education agency. "But it's also about the distribution methods of that content. Not everybody has access to the internet. So we need to make sure that they can also access content and continue their learning, no matter where they are, what they're doing."

After having discussions with teachers across the state in the wake of widespread school closures, officials realized that there’s a significant gap in available online learning content for kindergarten through third grade students, Mitchell said.

As a result, the Education Department will use the grant funding to carefully curate and vet the existing online resources for these grades to ensure they align with state standards and compile them into a single, easily accessible location for teachers and students, Mitchell said.

If there are any gaps in the available content that’s already created, the department will work to build its own series of approved resources, he said.

"You can Google just about anything and find all kinds of content and different things that students could use or look at, but we don't know if it actually meets the state standards, we don’t know if it’s a high-quality piece of content," he said.

The ultimate goal is to develop full online courses for these students, Mitchell said. While the grant will fund this initiative for K through 3 content, the state agency is also working to establish a database of online curriculum, also known as an online learning repository, for grades K through 12.

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But making sure there’s high-quality online content available for students and teachers is only half the battle. Making sure all students can access it, regardless of where they live or whether they have reliable internet access, poses an entirely new set of challenges.

Some 193,000 households, or nearly one in 10 in South Carolina, don’t have a good internet connection, according to research conducted by Palmetto Care Connections, the S.C. Office of Rural Health and the S.C. Hospital Association.

For some students, internet connectivity isn’t accessible because of where they live. Others can’t afford the service or don’t have a computer.

The new grant aims to create a temporary solution to this problem via datacasting, where students can receive instructional materials, including videos, PDFs, spreadsheets and PowerPoints, without internet access.

"Datacasting is essentially a one way transmission of instructional content," said Stephanie Frazier, vice president of education at SCETV.

The signals can be sent via ETV’s existing terrestrial broadcast signal and can be received on students’ cellphones, tablets or computers. The agency is investigating whether the datacasting technology could allow students to access materials on their televisions.

Datacasting isn’t a new technology. It’s been used over the past two decades to support information sharing during emergencies, Frazier said.

But datacasting in the educational realm is a territory that’s been largely unexplored so far, she said.

"For us, it’s a bridge to broadband. We recognize that broadband is certainly the ultimate goal for students," she said. "For us, datacasting offers an immediate solution while fibers are laid and other things are being done to implement broadband in those critical rural areas. We feel like data casting will help us to help students get the instructional materials that they need."

In order to set up datacasting, students will need to be provided with a receiver and an antenna, Fraizer said. While the plan is still in its early phases, ETV hopes to prioritize setting up the service in rural and high-poverty school districts with the most need. The agency has already had conversations with York School District 1 and Fairfield County School District. 

She estimates that the datacasting will serve between 3,000 to 5,000 students. 

So far, 67 school districts statewide have received final approval on their fall reopening plans from state Superintendent Molly Spearman. Last week, Spearman announced that masks will be required inside all public school buildings and on state-owned school buses. Face masks or coverings are not covered by the state's tax free weekend, which starts Friday. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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