CARES Act Money Coming for Schools

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By Stefanie Jackson – Accomack and Northampton County Public Schools combined will receive more than $2.3 million in financial relief through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), according to a May 1 press release from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane.

Accomack will get about $1.7 million and Northampton, the smaller school division, will get about $595,000.

During the May 5 Accomack school board meeting, Finance Director Beth Onley shared Lane’s recommendations for using the funds, such as buying permanent equipment, providing internet access to all students, paying for food service programs, or filling budget gaps caused by recent drops in state revenues from sales taxes and the Virginia Lottery.

Onley projected that lost revenue from sales taxes will add $437,000 to Accomack schools’ fiscal year 2021 budget shortfall.

The budget was already $641,000 short when it was approved by the school board and sent to the Accomack board of supervisors.

Onley explained. “We always do this in case the General Assembly comes back and adds money, which, in fact, they had done before this virus hit.”

Due to time constraints, Accomack and Northampton school divisions begin working on their operating budgets for the next school year before the state’s budget is approved by the Virginia General Assembly, when neither school division knows how much funding state legislators will reserve for public schools.

Accomack schools will get $500,000 less from the state next year, due to cuts in funding categories including basic aid, at-risk students, ESL (English as a Second Language), and the Virginia Preschool Initiative.

That brings Accomack schools’ FY 2021 budget shortfall to more than $1.6 million, not counting any possible changes in federal or local funding, Onley said.

Onley was concerned that $1 million in local funding may also be at risk. That includes an extra $200,000 for teacher salaries, which Accomack supervisors authorized for the cost of competing with nearby Maryland school divisions when hiring teachers.

The CARES Act money does not have to be completely spent until Sept. 30, 2022, giving the school board ample time to decide how to use the funds.

The school division will receive an initial CARES Act payment of $1.485 million, or 85% of the funds for which it qualified.

High School Graduation

Accomack high schools are revving up for a different way to recognize their seniors: drive-in graduation ceremonies.

“It’s going to be something really new and it will be something to show the seniors that we really do appreciate them, and we do want to recognize them before they leave us,” said Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Hall.

The drive-in graduation ceremonies will allow seniors to be honored for achieving an educational milestone while being safe and practicing social distancing.

“We need to do something for these seniors. They’ve missed a lot,” said Superintendent Chris Holland.

A drive-in graduation ceremony will be held in each high school parking lot, with a one-car-per-graduate limit. There will be one entrance to the venue, and an attendant will check off each graduating student’s name as he or she arrives with guests.

Each ceremony will be simple, with the principal and administrators saying a few words, followed by the roll call of graduates.

Graduates will be asked to wear their caps and gowns to the ceremony, which will be broadcast through outdoor speakers and local radio, so family members can listen in their cars or at home if they cannot attend.

Prior to graduation, each high school principal will arrange for students to pick up their caps and gowns and a set of guidelines for the event.

The Accomack County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to assist with traffic control and other safety considerations.

School board member Lisa Johnson asked if parents who are not together may attend in separate vehicles. Due to parking lot sizes, the limit of one vehicle per student must be enforced, Hall said.

Chairman Paul Bull said, “I know it’s not perfect, but it’s something that will keep everybody safe, which is our number-one goal, and honor graduates at the same time.”