Morgan County Schools awarded $1.15 million in distance learning funding

by Kate Evans

Morgan County Schools has been awarded a $999,999 distance learning grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  A private anonymous donor gave a $150,000 match toward the funding making it a total of $1.15 million. Morgan County Schools received the highest USDA grant award in West Virginia.

According to a USDA press release last week, this Rural Development funding will be used to establish distance learning systems at all Morgan County Schools.

The project is expected to aid 2,232 students and 202 teachers in Morgan County.

“It was a very difficult grant to write and I am proud that with the help of the Morgan County Partnership we were able to pull this together during a very short timeline and in a high stress time last summer. All the hard work has paid off,” Morgan County Schools Superintendent Kristen Tuttle said.

“This will bring much needed technology upgrades to our classrooms to better support student learning.  This is exciting for our entire system as without this additional funding we would never have been able to provide these improvements,” Tuttle added.

Morgan County Partnership Executive Director Kristen Gingery said that the grant writing was a teamwork project.  They all had been holding their breath since last July when the grant was submitted and were excited that the funding came through.

Funding uses

Federal funding will provide technology, updated equipment and distance learning platforms for all students, teachers and board office directors and staff to oversee and facilitate remote learning, blended learning and 21st Century learning delivery during COVID-19 and beyond, grant officials have said.

Chromebooks, iPads and laptops are some of the devices that will be purchased.

STEM electronic learning platforms will be expanded to the whole school district.  Students will have access to the National Science Foundation Digital Chemistry and Physical Science Gaming Pilot Plasma Games and the Mountain State Digital Literacy Project.  Students will also have seamless access to IXL math, English, social studies and science, according to a grant project summary written and shared by Morgan County Partnership Executive Director Kristen Gingery.

The USDA grant will help Morgan County Schools meet the 1-1 Technology Match model with 23 K-2 staff i-Pads and Swivl Technology for all 202 Morgan County teachers.

The Swivl technology uses an i-Pad robotic mount that can record remote-learning videos of teachers moving in the classroom or at home, using a Smart Board and giving presentations.

The digital learning rooms established by the grant funding will provide remote electronic and pre-recorded STEAM, Positive Actions, Too Good for Violence and Too Good for Drugs lessons for all students.

They’ll be equipped with state-of-the-art studio microphones, green screens, cameras, tripods, studio lighting, mini-recorders and Mac Book Pros for recording video lessons.

Other efforts to be funded by the grant include contracted tech support and updated wiring installation for each school site. All  staff and teachers will get classes on new technology and distance learning platforms. The county will also buy a county-wide Zoom site license, and get New Line Smart Boards for interactive distance learning. The county plans to get Samsung curved LED monitors and internet hotspots for each site.

Teachers will have improved internet access and the ability to record lessons from anywhere in the county.  The school board office will function as a supervisory hub site for all six county schools.

Grant requirements

All six Morgan County schools met the grant’s requirements for having geographically isolated and economically impoverished students. The county school poverty rate increased to 77.7% in 2019.

Four of six schools are Title I Schools with many low-income families, said Gingery, who wrote the grant with Partnership staff Kristen Willard and Morgan County Schools Technology Director Tom Shade.

Many students and teachers don’t have up-to-date technology for remote/virtual learning.

Gingery said that Morgan County Partnership will support Morgan County Schools during the project implementation by providing social/emotional learning, character education and substance use and violence prevention digital lessons to students.

USDA funding

The USDA has invested $42.3 million nationally in distance learning and telemedicine infrastructure to benefit some five million rural residents by helping them get access to health care and education.  The $42.3 million in grant awards includes $24 million provided through the CARES ACT.

The coronavirus pandemic is a national emergency and these investments will help millions of people living in rural places access health care and education opportunities that could change and save lives, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

State officials

West Virginia received $3,123,833 from USDA Rural Development monies for distance learning and telemedicine programs.

West Virginia Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito voted to approve funding to help West Virginians with distance learning and telehealth services and upgrading telecommunications and information technology for schools, colleges and health care providers, according to a joint press release.

Senator Manchin cited the difficulty healthcare providers and schools have had safely serving patients and students during the pandemic due to the lack of reliable, affordable broadband access across the state.

Senator Capito said these USDA funds will make it easier for medical and education experts to expand their services to rural communities in West Virginia.

Senators Manchin and Capito, Congressman Alex Mooney, Kristen Gingery and USDA West Virginia State Director Kris Warner wrote letters of support for the Morgan County Schools USDA grant.