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$16M to Target Special Ed in CT, Deadline for Connectivity Funding, + the Future of Masks in Schools

This weekly segment by Democrats for Education Reform CT looks at the top education stories Democrats are watching, providing bite-sized analysis and links to recent articles. On the roster this week: $16M to Target Special Ed in CT, Deadline for Connectivity Funding Approaches, and the Future of Masks in Schools

Federal Relief Funds to Target CT Special Ed

By now, it is fairly well-documented that during the unanticipated shutdowns at the beginning of the pandemic, schools struggled to meet students' needs—and especially to fulfill the IEP requirements of students with disabilities. But a further issue is whether other students’ special education needs have been going undiagnosed during the pandemic. According to EdWeek’s reporting last month, school interruptions have made it more difficult to recognize signs of disabilities in students, either because educators who might normally have noticed their struggles haven’t been able to do so in a remote environment, or because of backlogs in evaluation requests. New guidance from the White House this week addresses the issue by prioritizing support for students with disabilities to help them overcome challenges associated with the pandemic. In fact, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) devotes almost $2.6B in grants to states to support K-12 students with disabilities.

Here in Connecticut, Governor Lamont announced a similar effort on Monday, directing more than $16M in federal funding toward local special education services in 170 Connecticut school districts, through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II (ESSER II). The funding will be used to supplement districts' special education COVID-19 recovery efforts through four key initiatives: (1) addressing IEPs that have been delayed, interrupted, suspended or inaccessible; (2) conducting special education evaluations for up to 240 additional students; (3) supporting supplementary tutoring and reading instruction to address the needs of students with an IEP and a primary disability category of “Specific Learning Disability”/Dyslexia; and (4) providing individualized in-home assistance and support for up to 200 high-need students. Efforts like these to address the impacts of the pandemic on Connecticut's most vulnerable student populations are aligned with the goals and intent of the federal dollars, and we will likely see more of these roll out in the coming months.

Upcoming Deadline: Applications for FCC Connectivity Funding Due Next Week

In July, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a $7B Emergency Connectivity Fund to subsidize access to the internet and the purchase of devices. Schools and libraries that are eligible for the FCC's E-Rate Program are eligible for this opportunity. Applications are due next week, on August 13th.

Notably for Connecticut, which announced in December 2020 that it had closed the digital divide, the grant can also be used to cover reimbursements for monthly service costs. As an example—according to the FCC’s FAQ—although Wi-Fi hotspots that were purchased last year would not be covered, their service fees between July 2021 and June 2022 would be.

Back-and-Forth on Masks in Schools

Although the CDC announced in July that vaccinated students and school staff don't need to wear masks inside schools, it reversed those guidelines last week—calling for everyone to be masked in the K-12 setting. However, the recommendation is not a mandate that gets passed down to states.

In Connecticut, a current executive order requires masks inside school buildings until the end of September, but Governor Lamont says the state will soon announce a decision about updated masking policies. Meanwhile, districts are beginning to make their own plans. For example, Waterbury Superintendent Verna Ruffin has announced this week that the district expects students to wear masks, while New Canaan Superintendent Bryan Luizzi says that district will not require masks—barring high local transmission rates or an executive order to the contrary. Standards from the state will be key to ensuring students return safely back to in-person learning this fall and remain in the classroom full time.

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