David Mekeel: Berks County Intermediate Unit officials show lawmakers what they've spent COVID relief funds on

·2 min read

Nov. 30—The last 18 months have been hard on education.

The COVID pandemic has closed schools and forced students to learn online. It has thinned already shallow pools of teaching and substitute teaching prospects.

It has forced schools to implement new protocols and invest in new equipment. It has added extra stress for both students and staff.

And dealing with all of that hasn't been cheap.

Officials from the Berks County Intermediate Unit on Tuesday hosted a pair of local state legislators, as well as representatives for three others, at its Learning Center at Lower Alsace to thank them for their financial support during the crisis and show off what that support has helped pay for.

In particular, the BCIU officials spoke about federal COVID relief funding it received through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

Lump sums of money were given to each of the 50 states, and each then distributed dollars to local school districts and other educational entities.

Pennsylvania officials directed $2 million of that funding to the BCIU. Executive director Dr. Jill Hackman said the money is being put to good use supporting both students and teachers.

She said the $2 million the BCIU has received is "funding our future."

"That's what it's really about, the impact on our future," she said.

Hackman said the funding will ensure that the BCIU can continue its work to make sure the 70,000 school-age children in Berks are well-prepared for their lives following their school days.

Some of the things the $2 million is funding:

— Improving curriculum design, instructional practices and assessments.

— Supporting subgroups such as gifted students, students with disabilities and students learning English as a second language.

— Expanding career readiness programs.

— Collaborating with local nonprofits, the local business community and local colleges.

— Offering mental health support to students and staff.

Additional COVID relief funding for early childhood programs has also had an impact at the BCIU.

The BCIU currently operates 89 early childhood education classrooms through Head Start, Pre-K Counts and Early Intervention. In all, the BCIU serves about 3,500 students through the programs.

COVID relief funding provided an additional $3 million for those programs.

BCIU officials said that, despite the help of COVID relief funding, challenges still abound. There most pressing is an ongoing labor shortage that has impacted the entire education community.

The BCIU is still in need of bus drivers, teaching assistants and other support staff, Hackman said.

In many cases, pay rates have had to be upped to attract candidates, which means continued financial support is needed.

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