A piece of an $8 billion pie: Groups that run kids’ after-school programs don’t want to be left out of districts’ COVID-19 relief windfall

·3 min read

With Illinois schools receiving billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief, nonprofits and community groups that help children and families hit hardest by the pandemic are making sure they’re not forgotten as that money is spent.

Illinois is expected to receive more than $5 billion from the latest injection of federal dollars into the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Ninety percent of that will go directly to local school districts, according to officials at the Illinois State of Board of Education, including roughly $2 billion to Chicago Public Schools. That’s on top of nearly $3 billion the state’s schools received in the two earlier rounds of COVID-19 relief.

The U.S. Department of Education requires that school districts use the new coronavirus relief money to directly address student learning gaps and other hardships which were exacerbated during the pandemic.

But the funds can also be spent on initiatives offered by nonprofit community organizations and social service agencies, including those that provide tutoring and before- and after-school programs, state education officials said. Also allowed is assistance for families dealing with challenges ranging from food and housing insecurity to mental health issues.

The federal funding is especially important to Illinois nonprofit organizations, many of which were devastated by the state’s two-year budget impasse that ended in 2017, said Susan Stanton, network lead for ACT Now, a coalition of groups providing after-school and youth development programs statewide, including After School Matters, the YMCA of Metro Chicago and Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

“We’re still recovering from the budget impasse in Illinois, and it’s been a very difficult road for after school programs,” Stanton said. “How the (COVID relief) money is spent is really important, and it’s really about making sure groups who get funding are meeting the goals for students, and it’s not being used for other budget lines.”

Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, is among representatives of various Chicago-area nonprofits who spoke at a May 19 State Board of Education meeting, urging officials to channel relief funds to community groups.

“It’s going to be a tremendous task getting students back into school buildings, and making sure parents feel comfortable, and that these are safe places for their kids,” Brosnan said.

Brosnan stressed the importance of schools partnering with state agencies and nonprofits so they can work together to create “a comprehensive plan to support the needs of children and families in school settings.”

Other community nonprofits also underscored the urgency of schools working with groups that have existing programs for children, rather than districts starting from scratch.

Ciara Thomas, a community school coordinator with West Chicago Elementary School District 33, suggested the state board of education ensure that a portion of the federal COVID funds for Illinois schools be used to create “holistic” school communities.

“A dedicated school coordinator understands the climate and culture of a school. ... They bridge the gap between school and home, and help with things like food access and mental health services,” Thomas said.

At the board meeting, State Superintendent Carmen Ayala said financial assistance for community organizations seeking funding for programs that support students “could be on the more competitive side.”

But Ayala said above all, the groups need to “understand there has to be a partnership between public schools and community-based organizations.”

“These funds are intended to support kindergarten through 12th grade students, and we have to be clear about that,” she said.

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kcullotta

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