If there was ever a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders say it can be found in the increased level of funding at the federal level that has occurred in a few different forms over the of the last year.
Acronyms abounded in the second year of the pandemic, from ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) to PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) to ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief), the funds that have pours into Warren County and other parts of the state have been described as “once in a lifetime”.
Warren County Board of Supervisors Chair Kelle Barfield shared her perspective on the county’s plan for the use of its more than $8 million ARPA funds.
“One of the positives of the post-pandemic recovery period is additional sources of funding in various (forms), whether it’s PPPs or rental assistance programs, etc.”, a said Barfield. “Because Warren County received less than $10 million, we had the flexibility to use those funds for county infrastructure and needs that we didn’t initially think we could apply.”
As a result of ARPA funding decisions, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA, offered billions of dollars across the United States. Between those two sources of funding, Barfield said the oversight board is struggling to work out a problem: how to use those funds. to serve the greatest number of people in Warren County, without using ad valorem dollars, or the county’s approximately $40 million annual budget?
The first aspect of this decision-making process was $3 million of the county’s $8.8 million ARPA allocation to be used for the Warren County road paving plan.
“It’s something that’s a critical aspect of infrastructure and, like anything, it’s getting more and more expensive to maintain. We have a tremendous opportunity and roadway plan,” Barfield said. “We have announced offers and will soon be able to begin communicating specific areas of the county where these funds will be applied very soon.”
In addition to roads, ARPA funds have also been allocated for facility improvements to some county buildings, including the Warren County Health Department.
What sets Warren County apart from other local government agencies in the state is the supervisors’ commitment to allocating funds to partner agencies in various sectors that they believe will improve the quality of life for residents.
“We also had discussions about the main categories of needs here in our county: youth services, workforce development, housing and we had good conversations about the possibility of making tourism another ( category),” Barfield said. “(There are) a few ideas for these dollars to support existing programs or work with partner agencies, to make sure that we touch on all of these aspects of quality of life here in Warren County.
“And also, as a county, our desire was not to create a program – that was one of our criteria as we spoke with potential community partners,” she added. “If it’s an investment of one or two years, will it be able to exist beyond those one or two years? Is it sustainable? This was one of the criteria for discussions with potential partner agencies.
“In reality, we have a budget of about $40 million a year, and as good financial stewards, it is our responsibility at every hurdle to look at opportunities and needs that far outweigh the resources we have. have. It is truly a blessing to have this additional source of funding.
Each week since the funds were awarded in 2021, the Oversight Board has discussed which organizations it should allocate ARPA funds to. From holding public information sessions in each of the county’s five districts to meeting with potential recipients of ARPA funds and beyond, the process is in full swing.
However, Barfield said, the board has until 2024 to allocate its ARPA funds, so the process will continue over the next two years as the board reviews each application and determines long-term sustainability and benefits for the community beyond its initial investment.
ESSER Addressing learning delays
In addition to the once-in-a-lifetime federal funding to county governments, schools across the country have benefited over the past year from the award of ESSER funds.
Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Chad Shealy called the funds “valuable,” adding that because VWSD had implemented many programs and technology advancements before COVID through its bond issuance and other sources of funding, the district was able to allocate its ESSER funds differently from other school districts in Mississippi.
“Some of the advances we made before COVID really gave us an edge,” Shealy said. “Many districts (in Mississippi) are using their ESSER funds for HVAC upgrades, or some of their funds are going to IT technology and infrastructure upgrades – we’ve done that before.”
Students from other districts, he said, did not have the same access to technology as VWSD students, adding that VWSD was in the fifth year of having Chromebooks for students while d other districts have not implemented laptops on tablets for students until 2021.
Therefore, the district’s top priority was to help students recover from the effects of the pandemic emotionally, developmentally, and intellectually. But, Shealy said, he doesn’t use the buzzword “learning loss.”
“The top priority is that it is undeniable under any circumstances that there has been an adverse effect on student education as a whole, as a result of COVID,” he said. “It’s dual. First, it changed the whole structure of how instruction was delivered. Secondly, there is something called hypervigilance that children find themselves in, due to the amount of cortisol that has been produced – it affects the brain in a specific way.
Addressing students’ social and emotional changes in addition to educational needs necessitated that ESSER funds be used to enhance after-school programs and summer camp instruction.
Shealy also said that because the district had the virtual learning framework in place before the pandemic began, the data shows that VWSD students did not have as many learning gaps compared to others. Mississippi students.
“Because we had an asynchronous delivery device for teaching, we were able to move forward when we closed schools on March 15, 2020, when other schools didn’t really have that option,” said he declared. “We’ve seen less of a decline than the rest of the state average. I have never discussed the benefit of face-to-face teaching in the classroom, but this technology gives our students an advantage.
“It was much better than the paper packets coming home, the haphazard connections that some other districts struggled to get through.”
ESSER funds have also enabled the district to hire additional staff. A nurse has been assigned to each school in the district for the first time this school year, and instructional coaches have been brought in to help teachers at each school, as well as students who need additional services.
“It’s unprecedented. … We never needed the time (these programs anymore), and we never had the opportunity to implement these things at this level,” he said.