The U.S. Department of Education has approved Mississippi’s plan for spending pandemic-related education funds and released the last third of the money to the state. 

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund is intended to help schools run safely throughout the pandemic and increase opportunities for students whose educational experience has been negatively impacted. The fund was first created in March 2020 in the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and has been replenished multiple times throughout the pandemic by federal legislation. 

Mississippi was allocated $1.6 billion in the latest round of ESSER funds, this time through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The state received the first $1.08 billion in late March of this year and the remaining $543 million was released to the state yesterday. 

The plan includes a full return to in-person learning, encouraging local vaccine drives at schools, increased individual and small-group tutoring, summer enrichment programs, and the state’s telehealth program for mental health counseling

“Mississippi has prioritized in-person learning because it is the most effective way to keep students engaged, accelerate learning and address their social and emotional learning needs,” said Carey Wright, Mississippi state superintendent of education.

While some of these efforts – like a return to traditional learning and encouragement of vaccine drives – are already in place, others have been delayed. 

The telehealth program mentioned in the plan is a collaboration between the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Center for the Advancement of Youth (CAY) and the Achievement School District and Jefferson County School District. It consists of two parts: a program that aims to equip teachers with the skills to identify and respond to behavioral issues in their students, and a referral to a counselor for students who need more help. 

The program was initially set to launch in the fall but has been delayed until Jan. 12, 2022.

Teachers at both school districts told CAY officials their students are struggling with grief and loss, depression and anxiety, community violence and cyberbullying. Experts at UMMC will focus their efforts in those areas. 

Adrian Hammitte, the superintendent of Jefferson County School District, said the help is much needed as behavioral issues in both the upper elementary and junior high schools in his district have increased. 

“I think we all know over the last two years it has been extremely hard for the students, teachers and community members here,” he said. “And particularly in Jefferson County, if we look at our situation before COVID, it was already challenging.”  

The plan also includes improving connectivity and technology access for rural and low-income students.

 READ MORE: Follow the money: Mississippi Today tracks how the state is spending billions in pandemic relief funds

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.

Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.