'Real and meaningful': Conemaugh Township school district gets $1M+ grant for tech, telehealth

Nov. 20—DAVIDSVILLE, Pa. — Conemaugh Township Area High School is getting a significant amount of new technology after the district was awarded a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture distance learning and telemedicine grant aimed at assisting rural schools with connectivity.

"This type of technology will provide us an opportunity to have a seamless connection to outside entities," district Director of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Dabbs said.

Conemaugh Township administrators were made aware of the competitive program a year ago and spent 60 days and more than 360 hours working on the application while also participating in more than 24 meetings to meet the Jan. 28 deadline, Superintendent Nicole Dull said.

They created a budget, consulted with specialists, received letters of support from staff, students, colleges, museums and local legislators, wrote a grant narrative and had technology design meetings.

Conemaugh Township was awarded $942,000 with an adjusted local match of $142,006 for a grand total of $1.1 million.

Those monies will be used to purchase dozens of interactive projectors, laptops and interactive display boards, along with two clinical assist Telemed Carts and other technology, such as speakers, wireless microphones and related equipment, to turn the auditorium into a group learning space.

"It's definitely going to put us on a different playing field," Conemaugh Township high school principal James Foster said.

He added that the school already has a phenomenal staff, but with these improvements it will make "education that much more real and meaningful."

That goes for the teachers as well.

Dabbs said with the improvements to the auditorium, the space can be used for professional development.

Other possibilities include virtual class field trips and for community members to receive information on school subjects, such as safety.

"It's limitless," she said of the room's possibilities.

According to USDA info, the grant program "helps rural communities use advanced telecommunications technology to connect to each other — and the world — overcoming the effects of remoteness and low population density."

Districts are encouraged to engage in projects that promote equality and economic opportunity.

Rural schools across the country were put in the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic because of connectivity and limited access to the internet.

While more urban schools easily transitioned to online learning, rural students often struggled with slow internet speeds, unreliable video connections and similar disruptions.

Schools eligible for the grant are those in rural areas with populations of 20,000 or fewer and the money could be used for video, audio and interactive equipment, computer hardware and software, broadband facilities for distance learning and telemedicine and related expenditures.

Dull said the district targeted the high school as the hub for the program because of the elementary school's Johnstown address that wouldn't qualify the institution for the entire amount.

However, Conemaugh Township officials plan to reapply for the USDA funds for the elementary, which will also receive some technology upgrades from the high school once that building's new equipment comes in.

The other side of the grant is the telemedicine focus that will allow students to engage in counseling sessions without leaving campus, solve nursing shortages due to an absence and remove barriers for services.

Dull noted that many parents don't have the ability to leave work and take their child to a counselor, but with the new technology transportation won't be an issue.

"We're going to make it work more efficiently," she said.

An added benefit is the student doesn't have to miss a portion of school time in transit from one location to another, instead they'll have a secure room for the meeting and be able to get right back to class.

The superintendent also pointed out that having this type of connectivity will allow other students to begin counseling who couldn't before due to accessibility.

Additionally, Foster said the Telemed Carts, which can take a student's vitals, such as temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate, will help on days when only one nurse is available in the district.

If a child is sick, staff can connect virtually to another building and the nurse there can help.