For Distance Learning Funding, It Pays To Know Your Needs

The money is out there for school districts and higher education institutions that need to make improvements to secure distance learning funding to improve their capabilities. What will determine the success of who comes out ahead and gives students the best online learning environment possible is how resourceful and determined those groups are at identifying their needs and finding matching sources of funding.

The ever-shifting options for distance learning funding was the topic of a recent webinar by the United States Distance Learning Association, which has become an important resource for districts and organizations looking to respond to the demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. With schools across the country engaged in a spectrum of learning models – from entirely online to a hybrid of in-person schedules – there are still adjustments and improvements being made to distance learning programs that will require more budgetary resources.

The good news is that there is plenty of money available flowing from the federal CARES Act. For example, the Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund allocates more than $13 billion for pandemic-related needs including distance learning, and $25 million of the money committed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for pandemic programs is specifically for distance learning and telemedicine infrastructure.

With education dollars included in many different programs and “buckets” of money, it is advisable for education leaders to first identify the most important needs for their students and teachers. Once those needs are set, then the search can begin to look online for federal and state programs that can help to provide funding.

Kristin DeProspero, board member for the USDLA, said websites like are important resources for researching the sources and guidelines for potential distance learning funding.

“There’s rollover both in all levels of funding, whether we’re talking to local county districts, states or federal,” she said. “Probably the most critical thing is get together with the executives or the staff or the people who pay attention to these funding sources and really dig deep into where the intention is for these to go, because suddenly there is new money showing up at the doorstep.”

Know The Players, Priorities For Distance Learning

DeProspero said it is important for districts to know the landscape of how education dollars flow in a given state because in many cases the federal money was allocated to states with a specified purpose but state lawmakers and executives are responsible for dividing the money into individual grants. Certain programs will be under the purview of a governor while others may be overseen by a state or local education agency, making it necessary to know the people in policies in place at many different levels.

“One example is the Elementary Secondary Education Relief Fund, and then there is the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and so each of those groups were just basically earmarked as ‘Here’s a giant chunk of dollars for this section,’” she said. “I found out that in every state these are handled differently. And as you would expect, you need to be checking out your state websites to understand how those are happening. Most of those are happening on a formula fund basis.”

Kjierstin Layton, public sector head for Vyopta and also a USDLA board member, said the expansion of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service grant program was enacted because distance learning and telemedicine has become essential for those living without easy access to hi-speed Internet before the pandemic hit.

“The pandemic has made telemedicine and distance learning a priority. It’s no longer like, oh, that would be cool if we could get that. So we’re seeing a huge change in the traditional grants process now because of the pandemic to where dollars can be allocated,” she said. “The (Rural Utility Service) DLT program doubled its application amount for the award on this last funding cycle. And not only did they double it on the first round, but they opened up a second round, which is never been done in my 17 years.

“If you’re going to go out there and source funding, you’re going to have to be able to explain what it is you need and you need to explain that well to source as much funding as possible to be successful. Funding is coming, but let’s get our plans together from a technology perspective so we know what we’re asking for once that money is available and we’re able to draw down and make quick decisions effectively.”

For CARES Act resources specific to the education, telemedicine, and judicial services industries, access our resource kit.

Chad Swiatecki

Chad Swiatecki is a business writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, New York Daily News, Austin Business Journal, Austin American-Statesman and many other print and online publications. He lives in Austin, Texas and is a graduate of Michigan State University. Find him online on LinkedIn.