‘SILVER LINING’: COVID-era programs bring unprecedented funding to Warren County

Published 10:00 am Saturday, March 26, 2022

If there was ever a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders say it can be found in the increased level of funding at the federal level that’s come about in a few different forms over the last year.

Acronyms abounded in the second year of the pandemic, from ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) to PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) to ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief), the funds that poured into Warren County and other parts of the state were described as “once-in-a-lifetime.”

Warren County Board of Supervisors President Kelle Barfield shared her perspective on the county’s plan for use of its $8 million-plus ARPA funds.

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“One silver lining of the post-pandemic recovery period is additional sources of funding through various (forms), whether it was PPP or rental assistance programs and so forth,” Barfield said. “Because Warren County received less than $10 million, we were given the flexibility to use those funds for county infrastructure and needs that we were not initially thinking we could apply them to.”

Subsequent to the ARPA funding decisions, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA, offered billions of dollars across the U.S. Between those two funding sources, Barfield said the Board of Supervisors has been working to solve one problem: How can it use these funds to serve the greatest number of people in Warren County, without using ad valorem dollars, or the county’s approximately $40 million-dollar annual budget?

The first aspect of that decision-making process was for $3 million of the county’s $8.8 million ARPA allocation to be used for the Warren County Road Paving Plan.

“That’s something that’s a critical aspect of infrastructure and, like anything, it’s getting more and more expensive to maintain. We have a terrific opportunity and a road pavement plan,” Barfield said. “We’ve advertised for bids and will soon be able to start communicating specific areas of the county where those funds will be applied very shortly.”

In addition to roadways, ARPA funds have also been allocated for facility improvements at some county buildings, most notably the Warren County Health Department.

What sets Warren County apart from other local government bodies across the state is the Supervisors’ commitment to allocating funds to partner agencies in a variety of sectors they say will improve the quality of life for residents.

“We also have had some discussions of what are major categories of need here in our county: youth services, workforce development, housing and we’ve had good conversations about making tourism another (category),” Barfield said. “(There are) some ideas for making those dollars support existing programs or working with partner agencies, to make sure we’re touching on all those aspects of quality of life here in Warren County.

“And also, as a county, our desire was not to create a program — that was one of our criteria as we talked with potential community partners,” she added. “If this is a one- or two-year investment, is it going to be able to exist beyond those one or two years? Is it sustainable? That was one of the criteria in discussions with potential partner agencies.

“In reality, we’ve got a roughly $40 million budget annually, and as good fiscal stewards, it’s our responsibility at each and every hurdle to look at opportunities and needs that are far greater than the resources we have. It’s a blessing, really, to be given this additional source of funding.”

Each week since the funds were awarded in 2021, the Board of Supervisors has discussed organizations to which it should allocate ARPA funds. From holding public information sessions in each of the county’s five districts to meeting with potential ARPA fund recipients and beyond, the process is in full swing.

However, Barfield said, the board has until 2024 to allocate its ARPA funds, so the process will be ongoing throughout the next two years as the board vets each request and determines long-term sustainability and community benefit beyond its initial investment.

ESSER Addressing Learning Delays

In addition to the once-in-a-lifetime federal funding to county governments, schools across the country benefitted over the last year from the award of ESSER funds.

Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Chad Shealy called the funds “invaluable,” adding that, because VWSD had implemented many programs and technological advancements pre-COVID thanks to its bond issue and other funding sources, the district was able to allocate its ESSER funds differently from other school districts in Mississippi.

“Some of the advancements that we made prior to COVID really put us at an advantage,” Shealy said. “A lot of the districts (in Mississippi) are using their ESSER funds for HVAC upgrades, or portions of their funds are going to computer technology and infrastructure upgrades — we had already done that.”

Students in other districts, he said, didn’t have the same access to technology as VWSD students have, adding that VWSD was in year five of having Chromebooks for students while other districts didn’t implement laptops to tablets for students until 2021.

Therefore, the district’s top priority was helping students recover from the effects of the pandemic from an emotional, developmental and intellectual standpoint. But, Shealy said, he doesn’t use the buzzword term “learning loss.”

“Top priority is that there’s no denying under any circumstance that there was a detrimental effect to the education of students as a whole, from COVID,” he said. “It’s twofold. One, it changed the entire structure of the way instruction was delivered. Two, there’s something called hypervigilance that kids are in, due to the amount of cortisol that’s been produced — it affects the brain in a specific way.”

Facing the social and emotional changes of students in addition to educational needs required ESSER funds to be used for improvements to after-school programs, summer camp instruction.

Shealy also said that, because the district had the framework for virtual learning in place prior to the onset of the pandemic, data shows students at VWSD didn’t have as many gaps in learning compared to other students in Mississippi.

“Because we did have an asynchronous delivery device for instruction, we were able to move forward when we closed schools on March 15, 2020, when other schools didn’t really have that option,” he said. “We did see less of a drop than the average across the rest of the state. I’ve never argued the advantage of face-to-face instruction in the classroom, but that technology put our students at an advantage.

“It was much better than paper packets going home, hit-or-miss connections that some other districts struggled through.”

ESSER funds also allowed the district to hire additional personnel. There was a nurse assigned to each school in the district for the first time this school year, and instructional coaches were brought in to aid teachers at each school, as well as students who need additional services.

“This is unprecedented. … We’ve never had a time that we’ve needed (these programs more), and we’ve never before had an opportunity to implement these things at this level,” he said.