Distance learning grant

The USDA awarded a $1 million grant awarded to CESA 10 and members of the Distance Learning networks.

Area communities in Rusk, Barron, Chippewa and Washburn counties are expected to benefit following an announcement last week the USDA is investing $72 million in grants to help rural residents gain access to health care and educational opportunities. These grants are expected to benefit more 455,000 rural Wisconsin and Michigan residents and more than 12 million rural residents nationally.

In this area, the Cooperative Educational Service Agency 10 will use a $1 million grant to upgrade distance learning technology that will allow for cloud-based bridging and provide videoconferencing endpoints at 39 school districts in 14 counties in the west central part of the state. CESA 10 provides assistance to many area school districts including schools in Ladysmith, Flambeau, Bruce, Lake Holcombe, Bloomer. This will provide the resources to help students in rural districts have access to the same technology and services often available in urban and metropolitan areas. 

Also in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) Wisconsin is receiving a $996,000 grant to address the problems of rural health professional shortages, particularly opioid and substance use disorder (OUD/SUD) clinicians and behavioral health specialists, lack of patient access to acute hospital (critical and emergency department) and non-acute (outpatient clinic) care. The 13 hub/end user sites will provide emergency and treatment services for opioid/substance use disorders across Barron, Brown, Buffalo, Chippewa, Door, Eau Claire, Oconto, Rusk, Trempealeau and Washburn counties in western and eastern Wisconsin and Delta and Dickinson counties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

USDA is funding 116 projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program. DLT helps health care and education institutions buy the equipment and software necessary to deploy distance-learning and telemedicine services to rural residents. It also helps rural communities use the unique capabilities of telecommunications to connect to each other and to the world, overcoming the effects of remoteness and low population density. 

DLT helps rural residents tap into the enormous potential of modern telecommunications and the Internet for education and health care, two of the keys to economic and community development. For example, this program can link teachers and medical service providers in one area to students and patients in another. 

Several of the school districts around Rusk County were founding members of the WIN Distance Learning Network established in 1992.  Bloomer is a member of the CADENC Distance Learning Network, which began in 1999. 

These districts have a long history of working cooperatively to expand educational opportunities for all students.  Currently these five districts — Bloomer, Bruce Flambeau, Ladysmith and Lake Holcombe — have a combined 147 student enrollments in distance learning classes including post-secondary credits from eight higher education partners including UW-Eau Claire/Barron County, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Superior, CVTC, NTC, NWTC, Western and WITC.  Over the last 20 years, the collaborative dedication these five districts have had to their distance learning consortiums has resulted in 4,455 course enrollments. 

Funds from the USDA DLT grant will replace aging distance learning equipment at the districts, as well as the shared infrastructure managed by CESA 10.  Updated equipment will ensure the stability of, and provide increased capacity for, distance learning opportunities into the future. 

“Through the established distance learning networks, students in rural communities are able to enroll in courses that otherwise would not be available to them.  The unique needs of each district are met by working collaboratively to share staff and equipment, saving money and extending equitable educational opportunities to all students,said Jamie Kampf, distance learning operations manager for CESA 10.

The Ladysmith School District will receive a teaching cart and receiving cart for the distance learning classroom, according to School District Administrator Laura Stunkel. “This grant will benefit our school by providing necessary audiovisual technology in our distance learning lab at Ladysmith High School,” she said.

The grant award will serve to fund two primary purposes in Bruce schools, according to School District Administrator Pat Sturzl.

“First, school district video conferencing equipment will be updated and refreshed, expanding educational opportunities and improving endpoint reliability and security. Second, CESA 10’s video conferencing backbone and infrastructure will be replaced with the most current technologies, improving reliability, security and service to their member districts,” Sturzzl said.

The grant also will allow the Prevea clinics in Ladysmith, Rice Lake and Cornell to purchase telemedicine equipment, such as computer monitors, software and other tools which will give Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) and Prevea the ability to offer various outpatient services virtually to residents in those rural areas. This includes behavioral health services as well as care for substance abuse disorders. Those individuals will no longer have to travel to L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center in Chippewa Falls for outpatient services.

“L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center is honored to be a recipient of a national grant that will allow us to provide essential healthcare services in rural areas where access to professional counselors and programs is challenging,” said David Mortimer, grants director for HSHS Wisconsin.

Overall, this award for telemedicine equipment will serve 455,000 lives in 20 rural counties across Wisconsin.

“It will help HSHS save countless lives and improve quality of care by providing tele-behavioral health services, expanded tele-health care for substance use disorders, and tele-stroke care to patients in communities that have otherwise limited access to health care resources,” said Josh Gustafson, director of business development and strategic partnerships with HSHS and Prevea.

Access to telemedicine makes it easier for thousands of rural residents to take advantage of health care opportunities without having to travel long distances or be among large groups of people, according to Wisconsin Rural Development State Director Frank Frassetto.

“We are excited to partner with HSHS St. Vincent Hospital and assist the residents in their service area,” Frassetto said in announcing the awards. “We have been working tirelessly to be a strong partner to rural Wisconsin in building stronger and healthier communities, because we know when rural America thrives, all of America thrives.”

The filing process for a second funding window for fiscal year 2020 began last April and made available up to $25 million received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). While the CARES Act requires these funds be used to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus, USDA officials believe all DLT projects already serve that purpose. Applicants were encouraged to identify specific ways in which their application addresses COVID-19. 

Eligible applicants include most entities that provide education or health care through telecommunications, including most state and local governmental entities, federally-recognized tribes, non-profits, for-profit businesses and consortia of eligible entities.

Grant funds may be used for acquisition of eligible capital assets, such as broadband facilities, audio, video and interactive video equipment, terminal and data terminal equipment, computer hardware, network components and software and inside wiring and similar infrastructure that further DLT services. It may also be used for acquisition of instructional programming that is a capital asset and acquisition of technical assistance and instruction for using eligible equipment.

A minimum 15 percent match is required for grant-only awards.

The USDA $1 million grant will help fund the CESA 10 Distance Learning Project-Achieving Wisconsin Equity (AWE), to be combined with will $150,150 in school district cash match to invest more than $1.15 million in distance learning endpoints and infrastructure for 39 school districts in rural Wisconsin. The grant award will serve to fund two primary purposes. First, school district video conferencing equipment will be updated and refreshed, expanding educational opportunities and improving endpoint reliability and security. Second, CESA 10’s video conferencing backbone and infrastructure will be replaced with the most current technologies, improving reliability, security and service to their member districts.

AWE will address three needs in exceptionally rural Wisconsin school districts — a lack of educational opportunities for students, a lack of

trained teachers, and a prevalence of substance use and mental health disorders and the subsequent lack of access to education and treatment. AWE will leverage existing, well established partnerships between CESA 10, school districts, institutions of higher education and mental health care providers, while also expanding connections to local county health departments and law enforcement. The outcomes of AWE will impact more than 10,000 high school students and 2,100 PK-12 teachers in the region.

HSHS officials said the funds will assist with the purchase of telemedicine equipment that will allow HSHS Wisconsin, in partnership with Prevea Health, Libertas Treatment Centers (Green Bay and Marinette) and L.E. Philips Treatment Center (Chippewa Falls), expand critical health care offerings into 20 rural counties of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. 

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