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Sunday, July 21, 2024
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Op-Ed: The Urgent Need for Transparency in the Use of $138 M in ARP Funds for Education

Genevieve Whitaker

The recent Workforce and Development Committee hearing provided a crucial platform to discuss the future of education in the Virgin Islands, yet it is regrettable that key issues were not addressed with the necessary depth and transparency. Specifically, the reopening of schools and the detailed plans for expending the remaining $138 million in the American Rescue Plan Outlying Areas State Educational Agency (ARP-OA SEA) implementation plan were notably glossed over by the Virgin Islands Department of Education.

As the Chairwoman of the Committee on Workforce Development in the 34th Legislature, I have had to take extraordinary measures, including issuing a subpoena, to obtain critical information from the Department of Education. This level of oversight is essential to ensure that the substantial ARP funds are used effectively and transparently to support our educational system during these challenging times. To date, only 26 percent of the allocated $138,158,430 in ARP funds have been spent, leaving $102,275,163 that must be utilized before the funds expire on Sept. 30, 2024.

The ARP funds were approved by the U.S. Department of Education on Nov. 23, 2021, to support K-12 schools and students in the Virgin Islands. Here is the link to the archived Press Release: https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-approves-us-virgin-islands-implementation-plan-use-american-rescue-plan-funds-support-k-12-schools-and-students.

The funds are intended to sustain the safe operation of schools and equitably expand opportunities for students, particularly those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The approved implementation plan details how these funds will be used to support safe, in-person instruction and address the social, emotional, mental health and academic needs of students.

One positive development from the hearing was the announcement of a Dropout Prevention Plan. This initiative, which I had previously advocated for, is a step in the right direction. It is a response to a pressing issue that I was once told was “political” when I initially requested it from the former commissioner. Nonetheless, the new plan’s existence alone is not enough. The current commissioner of Education assured us that her team has developed this plan, yet it remains unseen by the public.

The community deserves more than just assurances; we need concrete details and accessible plans. The commissioner’s statements must be backed by a publicly available document outlining the strategies and actions to be taken to prevent dropouts. Transparency in this matter is not optional — it is essential.

Furthermore, the absence of a detailed discussion on the reopening of schools is alarming. The safe and effective reopening of our schools is critical for the continuity of education and the well-being of our students. We need comprehensive plans that address safety protocols, learning loss recovery, mental health support, and infrastructural improvements. These plans should be openly shared with students, educators, administrators, parents and the wider community to ensure everyone is informed and prepared.

The $138 million in ARP funds represents a historic investment in our education system. The funds must be spent wisely, with a clear focus on addressing the educational disruptions caused by the pandemic, supporting teachers, enhancing technology and ensuring all students have the resources they need to succeed. This requires detailed planning and transparent communication from the Department of Education.

In conclusion, while the introduction of the Dropout Prevention Plan is a positive step, the lack of visibility and detailed discussion on the utilization of ARP funds and the reopening of schools is a significant oversight. The Virgin Islands community deserves transparency and accountability from its educational leaders. It is imperative that the Department of Education provides detailed, publicly accessible plans on these critical issues to restore trust and ensure that our educational system can thrive in the post-pandemic era.

The future of our children’s education is at stake, and it is our collective responsibility to demand better oversight and clarity on these matters. Only through open dialogue and transparent planning can we truly support our students, educators and administrators in the Virgin Islands.

— Former Sen. Genevieve Whitaker

Editor’s note: Genevieve Whitaker, JD, MPM, MCJ, CPM, is a Democratic candidate for public office (Legislature of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix District) and a former senator, 34th Legislature of the Virgin Islands.

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