While families around the country grappled with the impacts of health mandates or transitioning from at-home learning for their kids, local school districts have been weighing how to use millions in federal COVID-related funding to help curb the impact.
Agencies have already put money into use from the country’s elementary and secondary school emergency relief, or ESSER, fund since the pandemic began two years ago. Now, district officials are getting plans into shape for ESSER III funds — first allocated tens of billions of dollars to Michigan through the American Rescue Plan in 2021.
For Port Huron Area Schools, that means $25.3 million. In the East China School District, the second-highest recipient, it’s more than $3.4 million, followed by Landmark Academy, as well as Algonac, Capac, Marysville, and Yale school districts with allocations still in the millions.
But administrators said strict rules like setting 20% of the funds aside to address learning loss complicate the process to develop spending plans.
“Most people don’t know that there are a lot of restrictions on how we can spend these funds,” Marysville Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Wightman, said in an email this month. The district is receiving more than $1.7 million.
“We must also ensure that those interventions respond to students’ social, emotional, and academic needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups,” Wightman said. “This takes a lot of time to develop which is why we have established an ESSER webpage to assist us in engaging in meaningful consultation with stakeholders and to give the public an opportunity to provide us input in the development of our plan.”
Port Huron’s board of education got an update on ESSER III plans from administrators at last Monday’s regular meeting.
Officials said a survey for parents, students, and community members was going out by the end of last week through Google Docs to get feedback on how funds should be prioritized.
Catherine Woolman, the district’s director of instructional services, said its results will be used to develop a plan that’s submitted to the state and later presented to school board members.
“One of the requirements that districts must comply with to receive this funding … is to engage in meaningful consultation with stakeholders and to give the public the opportunity to provide input into the development of its plan,” Executive Director of Business Services Kate Peternel said Monday. “This is a new requirement for the ESSER III funds.”
So, how are the funds being used?
Yale Public Schools Superintendent Kurt Sutton, addressing the 20% rule, said funds are going toward “finding the learning gaps and then creating ways to close those gaps” with things like before- or after-school tutoring, summer programs, and credit recovery.
The district is receiving more than $1.8 million. Sutton said the bulk of all ESSER funds they’ve received is in that amount.
As funds carry over into use for next year and beyond, he said, “Some of the money that isn’t spent will also be used to maintain the lower-class size.”
Peternel said there were 15 allowable uses for ESSER III in all, and that Port Huron schools broke them down into a few categories.
She told school board members they range from developing systems, training and professional development to minimize the spread of COVID-19 to purchasing supplies to clean, as well as a variety of facility-related uses, including repairs and improvements to all for safe operations and upgrades to improve indoor air quality.
On the 20% requirement, Woolman said learning gap interventions must be evidence-based or efforts that “have been done previously that research says, "These work to help students improve their math and reading skills.’”
The specific student groups whose needs should be considered in some efforts, she said, included those with disabilities, as well as those who are low-income, English language learners, a specific ethnic or racial minority, or foster care youth.
Other uses, Peternel said, can also go toward mental health and support services and to assisting district staff. The latter, however, came with a caveat.
“One thing we are often asked is if the funds can be used for salaries or bonuses,” she said. “It is very clear that they can’t be used for permanent increases, and any one-time payments must only be for duties above and beyond regular duties. And they also must be aligned with the pandemic. … And we also have to remember that once these funds are gone, the general fund will have to continue to pay for anything that we’ve put in place long-term.”
Additionally, Woolman said educational technology could be an applicable use.
That was an area Debby Wilton, superintendent at Landmark, pointed to with “online learning platforms for families that choose a virtual option for their children.” She also said they plan to upgrade the school’s heating and cooling systems “to provide clean air and climate-controlled buildings.”
Landmark Academy is receiving $2.2 million in ESSER III money.
Algonac Superintendent Alan Latosz said their district, which got more than $1.8 million, is focusing on staffing needs in narrowing the gap “for students who missed out on so much instruction over the past two years.” He also addressed students’ mental strain and allocating funding for extra help through a social worker, counselor and school nurse.
School officials differed in how much of their funds had been deployed already.
Latosz said most had already been spent or had a designated plan with “decisions going forward” surrounding a remaining $600,000.
Peternel said the ESSER funds moving forward must be obligated by September of 2024 and related expenditures liquidated by December that year.
How else have districts prepared for ESSER III funds?
Sutton said Yale officials went through informational training to see how funds could be used.
“And we continue to be very careful to make sure we’re spending on things that are allowable expenditures,” he said. “We aren’t just deciding on a whim. … We’re carefully planning this to make sure we get the most bang for our buck.”
Latosz said, like Port Huron, Algonac Community Schools put out a survey.
Woolman said Port Huron Schools convened a recovery advisory committee in August and “inching into September” whose members consisted of administrators, school board members, building and transportation officials, union representation, and representatives from various community agencies.
“We had parents present, and those parents represented students from elementary, middle, and high school,” she said. “We had two students present. We had a student from each high school, and I think anyone here that was on the committee will echo that their voice was probably the most valuable voice they heard.”
Superintendent Theo Kerhoulas also visited Port Huron school facilities, Woolman, said, holding more than 30 sessions on the COVID recovery process and talking with roughly 150 students and a little over 240 district staff members.
Wilton said Landmark evaluated potential areas of learning loss. In other preparation, she said, "We have met with various staff members and families to consider how best to allocate the funds. We have also analyzed the requirements and guidelines set in the grant funding to ensure we are spending the money appropriately."
East China Schools Superintendent Suzanne Cybulla did not return multiple requests for comment on ESSER III funds, nor did Jeff Terpenning, superintendent with Capac Community Schools. That district received $1.2 million.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Memphis Community Schools was to receive $797,712, and East Shore Leadership Academy $718,439 with the St. Clair County Intervention Academy, Virtual Learning Academy of St. Clair County, and Blue Water Middle College getting allocations of $245,660, $222,484, and $81,484, respectively.
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.
This article originally appeared on Port Huron Times Herald: School districts weigh how to spend millions in federal COVID relief-related funds