Editor’s note: The following is a two-part series summarizing how local schools and municipal governments are spending funds provided through the American Rescue Plan. The first article focuses on local schools. The second focuses on local governments and will appear in next week’s edition.
By Kathy Turner
For the Times-Tribune
March of 2020 brought something that most didn’t think they would see in their lifetime. In a blink of an eye the entire country, along with most of the world, came to a grinding halt as COVID-19 – a global pandemic — hit home.
Many thought that the situation would right itself in a few weeks. But, as March became April and April became May, more and more signs of an extended change to normal life was evident. Two principal entities were feeling the impact of having everyone at home 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Local governmental agencies and school districts were facing challenges all their own.
School administrators and leaders could not just shut down and wait for a cue to re-open. They were, from the first day, in the planning process of what happens next. How could they provide to students and their families the things that were necessary for their growth and development? And, as each anticipated date came and went, those plans had to be adjusted.
Cities and villages were also facing challenges. They had to assure the provision of police protection, fire protection, and emergency services. They also had to make adjustments to their operations to assure that this virus – still very new and its long-term effect unknown – could not and would not impact water supplies, sewer plants and other municipal services. All while ensuring the safety of their employees.
Leaders in Washington recognized the hardships on schools and local governmental agencies. Beginning in April of 2020, and again over the next couple of years, legislators agreed to provide funding to assist schools and local governmental agencies. The funds were designed to begin the process of putting them in a position to handle the current challenges and plan for the future.
School funding came in the form of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants. Community funding came in the form of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Both provided thousands upon thousands of dollars to local entities that were both unanticipated and unprecedented. Both also came with guidelines on their usage and deadlines to commit those funds to benefit their constituents.
ESSER grants were initially designed to assist schools in finding ways to operate safely, yet efficiently, as the effects of the shut-down were felt. There were three phases of ESSER funding over the last three years.
The first round of funding was to help schools find a way to provide what had become the new catchphrase – distance learning. Schools were tasked with the challenge of taking classroom learning to the individual homes of their students. This meant technology as well as training and curriculum to implement the programs.
Most of the districts, particularly in our region, had students from varying economic backgrounds and both urban and rural settings. Not all students had individual access to computers. Internet service, necessary for distance learning, was not available to every student. School districts had to devise plans to assure that every student, in every situation, had both the equipment and the technology to connect with teachers in a virtual classroom.
This also meant training for teachers as they took their classroom training to the virtual world. For most, that meant revised curriculums that were conducive to the cyber world. And it meant providing teachers with the staff to train them on the intricacies of teaching virtually.
As the summer of 2020 progressed, districts were expending funds on the technology, training and equipment needed to make the 2020/21 school year operate as smoothly as possible. And as potential in-class training appeared again a possibility, schools faced the challenges of bringing students back safely. Classrooms that normally were full of students had to be adjusted to allow for social distancing — another catchphrase that grew out of the pandemic. Water fountains had to be closed down and/or replaced with bottle filling stations. Cleaning and disinfecting protocols had to be in place.
Later funding was designed to address other concerns that were revealed. They were finding that students who had not been in a classroom for months were facing huge gaps in their educational progress. Schools had to look at ways to address these educational gaps, whether through expanded hours, summer school sessions, or tutors.
The following represents how our regional districts have used their funding to address those needs. Funding levels were determined by the number and percentage of low-income students each district serves.
Highland School District
Highland School District received approximately $5.8 million in funding through the ESSER grant programs.
Initially, district administrators and board members focused on the most immediate concerns to meet pandemic challenges. $2.7 million was allocated to meet educational needs. This included curriculum, supplies and staff training for an efficient distance learning program. It also included technology and equipment to assure each student had access to a computer and internet connection to allow for classroom ‘attendance.’
Finally, initial funding allowances were made to provide protective equipment for students, staff and teachers. This included sanitizing and disinfecting equipment, spacing and protection in an effort to manage, control and reduce the immediate threats to public health and safety.
Approximately $3.1 million in funding has been designated to complete an addition to the Highland Middle School. The space is necessary to address social distancing and safely house the students as classes resume in the schools.
The final $1 million is designated to address the concerns of learning loss. This will include summer enrichment programs and after school programs. Funds will provide curriculum, technology and equipment. It will also fund the staffing and their professional development, instruction and learning. The remainder is designated for supplies to run the programs.
Triad School District
Triad School District was allocated approximately $1.4 million in the initial phases. As outlined by the funding guidelines, the district first focused on being able to provide instruction to students virtually. They also distributed a survey to district residents asking their input into funding allocations.
A large portion of the expenditures was for the provision of Chromebook computers for older students and teachers as well as Chrome Tablet devices for younger students. It also included a large expenditure for tech services to assure constant connectivity for the teachers and students.
The district partially funded the position of a Curriculum Director charged with addressing learning loss as well as developing before school, after school and summer school programs. This will help the district address any gaps in education as a result of the initial shut down and as a result of distance learning.
There was particular focus on the safety and well-being of students and staff at the schools. Funds were used to set up outdoor tents as structures to be used as control and security systems for all six schools in the district. There was also funding for cleaning supplies, gloves, masks, face shields, and additional supplies to assure thorough cleaning protocols at the schools.
They also increased cafeteria service areas to allow for distancing during lunch hours as well as air purification systems to address air quality in the schools. Water fountains at the schools were replaced with water bottle filling stations to eliminate exposure.
Triad also focused some of the funding on staffing needs. They added not only the curriculum director but also social work staff to address the mental health concerns of students upon returning to school, an identified concern nation-wide. Staffing funds will also provide for a learning loss preventionist at the middle school and high school as well as summer school teaching stipends and benefits.
Triad School District recently released their preliminary spending plan for the final ESSER III funding phase. They are still accepting public input on their plan which includes nearly $2.4 million. Twenty percent of the funds must be used to address learning loss of the students in the district as the result of the pandemic.
The preliminary plan includes expenditures of the 80% of funds that are open to additional technology devices (a need as student numbers fluctuate) and an upgrade of the WiFi/Server infrastructure in all of the district buildings.
There will also be funds designated to address safety concerns including modular cafeteria systems, touchless restroom facilities, water bottle filling stations and locker room air purifiers.
In addition, the funding will provide staffing including a Director of Secondary Curriculum, and middle school and high school learning loss interventionist, a success center aide and two additional custodians.
The remaining 20%, designated for learning loss, will be used to fund a Middle School Social Worker and staff stipends in learning loss instruction and tutoring. Finally, these funds will provide additional services designed specifically to address learning loss.
An additional $328K, which is a state set-aside fund strictly to address learning loss, will be used to strengthen the after school and summer school programs. This will include curriculum purchases as well as supplies to aid in provision of instruction and intervention. Finally, funds will be used to offer staff stipends to address the learning loss problem.
Collinsville School District
Dr. Brad Skertich, Superintendent of the Collinsville School District, described the funding of the ESSER programs to the district as ‘shock and awe.’
“We have never seen this type of funding in education,” said Skertich. “For the first time, education was put in the spotlight.” The district received $24.8 million in funding.
Like other districts, Skertich said the first phase of funding was identified to address concerns with technology, connectivity and personal protective equipment for students, staff and teachers. The implementation of distance learning made it necessary for the district – and its students – to adapt quickly to changes.
As a result, they relied heavily on the input of grant-funded instructional coaches who identified ways to cover the learning gaps found when transitioning from in-class to distance learning. This included funding support for a targeted audience in the district who found the transitions harder than others – the students in the EL (English Learners) programs.
Collinsville has about 1,375 students whose primary language is Spanish. As such, funding was needed to address the specific needs of these students. That meant that curriculum and instruction materials purchased with the grants for distance learning were also necessary in the Spanish language. Curriculum enhancements for virtual training were funded initially in the areas of English, Math and Social Studies.
The district also focused the initial round of funding on upgrading the HVAC systems at Webster Elementary, the new addition at Dorris Intermediate School, Caseyville Elementary School, and Collinsville High School. These upgrades assist in the purification of air in the buildings.
As with other districts, Collinsville has allocated a good portion of funds to adding staff to assist students in addressing learning loss. There have been seven new staff positions funded to address the areas of reading and mathematics in the district. There are also staffing positions funded to provide mentoring and tutoring services.
The largest portion of funds, however, will address not only social distancing but also classroom overcrowding. Set to open for the 2024-25 school year, the district recently broke ground on a new elementary school in Caseyville. ESSER funds will be allocated toward the project which comes at a time when construction costs are running above what was initially anticipated during planning stages. So, the grant funds will provide what is needed to meet district goals without relying on taxpayer dollars.
Skertich foresees that schools will feel the impact of the pandemic at the school level for four to five years. “I think we are going to see the social development of students impacted for some time,” he said. “This experience has helped districts develop a playbook that I hope we never have to use again.”