Lagging behind other states, Reeves makes $23 million in education relief funds available

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media about his shelter-in-place order for Lauderdale County during a press conference at the State of Mississippi Woolfolk Building in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

After more than three months, Gov. Tate Reeves’ office is seeking applications for a portion of a $34.6 million pot of federal COVID-19 relief funds for education — well after most other states have awarded their funds.

The federal government awarded Mississippi its emergency money June 1, but Reeves’ office only issued its funding priorities and request for proposals for $23 million of those funds last week.

Most states — and all of those in the deep South excluding Mississippi and Tennessee — submitted their initial 45-day reports detailing how the funds are being spent early in the process. Florida, for example, used part of the funds to award “summer recovery grants” to school districts in July.

Mississippi requested an extension but did submit its report Sept. 3.

The reason for the delay was because Reeves wanted to see how the Legislature appropriated other relief funds for distance learning, “as well as how the Department of Human Services utilized their CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) dollars to ensure there were no gaps in services provided to Mississippians,” explained Renae Eze, communications director for Reeves.

But despite being approved for funding by the federal government on June 1, a request for proposals went out Sept. 10. The deadline for schools and other eligible groups to apply for the funds is Sept. 24.

The next portion of the request for proposals will be released as soon as the current funds are awarded on Oct. 1, said Eze. The deadline for funds to be awarded from the governor’s office is by June 1, 2021.

If not enough quality proposals are accepted, the remaining funds will be made available as part of a second request titled “Innovative Educational Solutions,” according to a letter from Holly Spivey, Reeves’ education policy advisor and Head Start Collaboration Director.

The money, called the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March. The CARES Act contains one category of funding called the Education Stabilization Fund, which then breaks down into further categories that include the GEER Fund. Other pots of this education money are managed by the Mississippi Department of Education and colleges and universities directly, while the governor’s funds are to be disbursed at Reeves’ discretion.

READ MORE: Mississippi to receive millions in education CARES Act funds

The U.S. Department of Education announced the nearly $3 billion in GEER funds in April to “quickly be made available to governors to ensure education continues for students of all ages impacted by the coronavirus national emergency,” a press release from the U.S. Department of Education stated.

The purpose is to provide relief to schools the state education agency identifies as having been most significantly impacted by COVID-19. It may also go to colleges and universities in need.

The funds are also designed to support any other school or “education-related entity,” defined as a governmental, non-profit or for-profit entity within the state that provides services that support preschool and K-12 education, that the governor deems as needing support.

Reeves outlined two priorities for the first category of funding. The first focuses on educational services for children under 5 years old, and the second on school-aged children.

Day cares and other child care organizations can apply for funds to help provide full or part-time care and education for children in that age group who are in foster care, or whose parents have lost access to their regular child care arrangements, cannot afford child care or are experiencing negative job impacts from a lack of access to childcare.

Parents and other caregivers may also apply to improve the quality of care and education for young children by providing access to programs, training or technical assistance; providing health and safety equipment for supplies and training; building the long-term capacity of care providers to offer quality services; and supporting the coordination of care, education and health-related services for young children.

The second priority is for education services for school-age children, including those with diagnosed developmental delays or other disabilities. These services must include providing school-day or work-day care to children who are in foster care or whose parents are essential workers, have lost access to child care or are at risk of losing their job or other negative impacts related to a lack of child care.

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright and Mississippi State Board of Education Chairman Jason Dean have been “in regular communication” with Reeves’ office about the state education department’s priorities to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on public education, according to a statement from the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE).

“The MDE is in agreement with plans for the Governor’s Emergency Education Response (GEER) Fund, which prioritizes childcare from birth to age 5, services for school-age children with disabilities and innovation strategies for distance learning,” said Jean Cook, a spokeswoman for the MDE.

Once schools, day cares and other educational organizations receive their share, they have until September of 2022 to obligate the money. However, guidance from the U.S. Department of Education urges recipients of the grant “to deploy GEER funds quickly.”