Tennessee to award $81 million in grants to help schools reopen safely

Gov. Bill Lee has been at the helm of Tennessee during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday the state will distribute $81 million in federal funds through grants to help schools plan for a safe reopening. (TN.gov)

Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that Tennessee will distribute $81 million in grants to help schools reopen safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

The vast majority of the federal funds will go toward K-12 education to provide technology and support online learning. 

About a fourth of the money will go to higher education to help with social distancing and online learning at colleges, universities, and technical schools.

“Reopening our schools, colleges, and universities is a key priority, and grant funding ensures institutions can make proper accommodations to keep educators and students safe as we continue to fight COVID-19,” Lee said in a statement.

The grants will be a welcome addition to about $230 million in federal money that Tennessee’s 147 school districts are splitting this summer from the nation’s coronavirus relief package. In June, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told a congressional committee that reopening schools this August could cost each district an average of between $1 million to $1.75 million just to pay for cleaning, safety equipment, and staffing needs — not including the cost of technology.

The grants will include $50 million to help districts pay for laptops, Wi-Fi, and other devices. Those non-competitive matching grants will be managed by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Another $11 million aim to help districts with other reopening costs. Ranging from $25,000 to $150,000, those grants will go to school systems that have a continuous learning plan in place, as required by the state Board of Education in an effort to provide the full 180 days of required instruction next school year.

Higher education grants will be available for public and private institutions based on their populations of low-income students. The money will help colleges and universities make physical changes to their campuses, limit enrollment in-person classes, and install or upgrade technology, as well as to reconfigure classrooms and student housing to ensure social distancing.

Program oversight will come from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration.

The governor’s announcement was made in conjunction with Tennessee’s Financial Stimulus Accountability Group, a bipartisan committee that has been overseeing management of all federal relief funding related to the virus.

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