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Legislative committee on COVID relief spending hears about nutrition, technology in schools

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A legislative committee tasked with reviewing how state agencies have spent their COVID-19 funding heard about spending on school nutrition and technology on Wednesday.

The committee heard from Vanessa Wrenn, the chief information officer for technology services at the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and Lynn Harvey, who heads up DPI’s school nutrition division.

Technology

Wrenn spoke to the efforts undertaken by the state to ensure that students had internet access and devices. North Carolina spent almost $97 million in federal COVID-19 funds on everything from devices to connectivity, she explained.

Additionally, districts and charter schools requested almost $160 million from a fund provided by the Federal Communication Commission for devices and services.

From 2019, before the pandemic, to 2022, Wrenn said the number of districts that provide devices to access the internet to every student went from 16 to 104.

She said that the benefits of that change are being seen now in the traditional classroom. However, since the federal funds are one-time funds, the big concern for districts now is what’s going to happen when all of these devices need to be replaced.

She estimated that at a base level, it would cost about $150 million annually to replace 25% of devices for all students. Costs will be higher when other associated expenses are taken into account, she said.

“The challenge for us all over the next few years will be to figure out how to support schools to create a sustainable model,” she said.

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, asked Wrenn whether the increase in technology was actually progress, questioning whether the move from 16 school districts providing technology to all students to 104 was a net positive for the state.

“If we were doing such a great job with 16 … why do we feel the need now to put it in everybody’s hands?” he asked.

Wrenn explained that while only 16 districts had programs where all K-12 students had devices, many more districts had programs that provided devices for all students in portions of their public education system — for instance, in high school or middle school.

“It’s become very critical to have technology at students’ disposal almost all the time,” she said.

Torbett asked if it’s the government’s job to provide internet connectivity and whether the state is looking at programs that don’t work as a possible source for technology funding.

“I think there has to be a partnership among many people,” Wrenn said on the question of who should provide connectivity. “I do not think it is any one person’s responsibility.” 

She went on to say that schools use a mix of state, federal, and local funds to fund their technology and connectivity, but that she agrees that programs that don’t work should be discontinued so that things like technology can be funded.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, said that while Wrenn spent a lot of time talking about money spent on devices, she spent less time on instruction related to using this technology. He said spending money on devices is pointless unless it translates into learning gains for students.

“It seems to me that there’s a total absence almost on any emphasis on doing a better job of actually using whatever devices, whatever access, whatever warranties we have to actually move the needle for students,” he said.

Wrenn said she had to focus her comments on the expenditure of federal funds because that was the purpose of the committee meeting, but she thanked Blackwell for giving her the opportunity to talk about the benefits to instruction that have come from the increased use of technology.

Among other things, Wrenn talked about the work the state has done to prepare teachers to use technology, including coming up with digital learning competencies in 2015 that teachers are required to know. She also said that during the pandemic, without additional funding, the state provided virtual trainings almost daily for teachers.

“We worked very hard to teach how do you take your instruction to a better place because of these technology tools,” Wrenn said.

She said the state has also provided grants to institutes of higher learning so that they can incorporate the digital competencies developed by DPI into educator preparation programs.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, asked about the benefits of digital technology, pointing out that legislators have heard from many parents as well as education officials about how ineffective remote learning was.

“Are we really helping by promoting more and more and more digital learning when we all know … that we have had a huge learning loss?” she asked.

Wrenn said there is a difference between the emergency remote instruction that happened at the worst point of the pandemic and digital learning generally.

“Digital learning, we have used this in North Carolina for many years,” she said, adding that it has shown positive results in instruction for students.

Nutrition

Harvey took legislators through the state’s efforts to keep feeding kids during the pandemic, particularly when schools went remote and qualifying students could no longer access free and reduced-price lunch meals at school.

Harvey talked about how the federal government has moved during the pandemic to providing free meals to all students regardless of eligibility, but that this is a waiver rather than a change in the eligibility rules. A return to a pre-pandemic version of the school nutrition program would be “catastrophic,” Harvey said, because the number of students participating in the school lunch program has decreased during the pandemic and the money these students pay for food offsets a good portion of the cost of this program.

She asked lawmakers to write a letter to the federal government asking for a continuation of federal waivers, as well as providing more state funding to help keep the school nutrition program going.

During the question and answer period, Torbett cautioned that the questions he was going to ask weren’t meant to imply that he doesn’t like children or wants them to go hungry.

“The media will say that any negative question at all means we like hungry kids,” he said.

He went on to question what feeding children seven days a week, as school nutrition services did during the worst of the pandemic, has to do with educating students.

“To me, that’s not education, that’s health care,” he said. “Is it time that we separate and focus on educating our kids through the education system?” 

Harvey said that school nutrition services did cross the bridge from education to health care when schools were closed. But she said this happened because everybody was worried about a public health crisis if some kids couldn’t get food. She said that in the current phase of the pandemic, the focus is on feeding kids in schools.

Torbett wondered whether school nutrition services might be more properly positioned within the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, rather than DPI.

“We all understand a child’s got to be not hungry to learn well,” he said. “We all understand that part.”

Krawiec asked about the importance of school lunches being both palatable as well as nutritious.

“I know we want nutritious meals, it’s important for children to have that, but if they’re not going to eat it, it’s not going to benefit anybody,” she said.

Harvey agreed and talked about the K-12 culinary institute in the state, which helps provide food preparation instruction for school nutrition personnel.

“Providing meals that simply meet a nutrition standard … is not in our best interest,” Harvey said.

Rep. Erin Paré, R-Wake, asked about the reasons for the decrease in participation in the school nutrition program.

Harvey said that part of the reason could be more strict nutrition standards, which result in healthy foods that students weren’t accustomed to eating.

Paré said it seemed possible that fewer people participating might actually mean that there were fewer students in need.

Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, questioned the assertions made by Harvey during her presentation, saying that she was taking advantage of a crisis to ask for funding. For instance, he said that when Harvey is talking about children being hungry, she doesn’t actually have data on child hunger but rather is relying on household income data and assuming that the children in poorer households are hungry.

“This whole disingenuous campaign of hunger is just plain disingenuous if you just look at income data,” he said. “You have to dig deeper.”

Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, suggested that Harvey email him and tell him what other area of the state budget should sacrifice to make up the money she would need from the state for nutrition services.

Harvey’s presentation included a primer on child hunger in North Carolina. See that slide below.

Closing remarks

Rep. James Boles, R-Moore, a co-chair of the committee, made general remarks on the use of federal COVID-19 spending on education at the end of the meeting. Boles said:

“We see that there’s been a lot of federal COVID relief funding provided to the DPI … some of the money was well spent, but unfortunately with some of it, we are unable to measure its effectiveness at this time. It is evident that based on the continuing low percentage of students with reading and math proficiency … there is a lot of work to be done.”

He went on to say that learning loss from the pandemic has increased the needs of students, and he referenced remarks made by state Superintendent Catherine Truitt at the committee last week about how the state’s education system isn’t working for all students.

“Our educational system is in need of major reform,” he said.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.