ELIDA — The coronavirus pandemic has come with a silver lining for public schools: Billions of dollars in federal funding to fend off pandemic learning loss and make schools safe for the coronavirus era.
The funds have allowed schools to upgrade their ventilation systems, purchase personal-protective equipment and invest in cleaning supplies needed to bring students back to the classroom.
But they’ve also allowed K-12 schools to experiment with new summer school and afterschool programs, mental health clinics and other educational supports for students who have fallen behind during the pandemic.
How they’re spending
Cleaning supplies alone cost Elida schools $88,000 last school year, a necessity for districts that prioritized classroom learning. The district spent another $107,000 just on COVID-19 leaves and is planning to hire intervention specialists to improve student reading scores.
For Lima schools, pandemic relief meant the district could replace its traditional summer school program with interactive summer camps, which saw students riding horses, writing original plays, analyzing crime scenes and learning about oceanic exploration.
For Bath schools, the funding created an opportunity to upgrade old HVAC systems and offer student mental health clinics.
Others such as Shawnee schools hired tutors or continued to fund payroll for staff who may have been laid off otherwise.
Congress established the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER for short, fund in 2020 to support K-12 schools as they abruptly turned to virtual learning, which highlighted disparities in student access to broadband, technology and nutritious meals.
But what started as an emergency relief fund has grown under the Biden administration, which extended $123 billion in aid to schools through the latest round of ESSER spending included in the American Rescue Plan.
At least 20% of those funds are intended to target learning loss, or educational setbacks students have incurred because of the pandemic.
Learning loss concerns
The sudden transition to virtual learning after Gov. Mike DeWine ordered schools closed highlighted disparities in student access to computers, broadband and even nutritious meals.
Schools adapted quickly, but students often struggled without face-to-face time with their teachers and peers.
Even students who were able to return to the classroom last fall risked being quarantined each time a classmate tested positive for coronavirus, and the constant disruption to their daily routines left many with anxiety and stress.
Elida schools saw student proficiency decline in all subjects except third-grade math, fourth-grade English language arts and high school government.
Students who continued online instruction saw the greatest deficits, but even students who returned to the classroom struggled at times with anxiety about the pandemic, said Julie Simmons, curriculum director for Elida schools.
While some online students did well, others rarely logged in to complete their coursework — a problem for families with spotty internet access or whose children shared a single device for their schooling. In those cases, students were encouraged to come back after the first nine weeks to avoid falling further behind, Simmons said.
“Missing a whole nine weeks plus the end of (the previous) school year — there were significant gaps there that had already occurred,” she said.
Closing the gaps
Elida is now experimenting with intervention strategies to improve reading scores, particularly at the elementary level where reading gaps are easiest to close.
Students are regularly assessed to identify where they are falling behind and assigned to small groups for more personalized instruction, allowing students to transfer into new groups when their skills advance, while older students are offered peer tutors.
“The end of first grade is crucial for getting those phonics skills so that they are able to read,” said Mellani Cady, a Title I reading instructor at Elida. “But there’s a huge, huge gap there” for third graders who missed the end of their first grade year in 2020.
“We made some growth last year,” Cady said, “but we still have a lot of work to do this year.”
Lima schools is hiring small group instructors to close the reading gap, which grew during the pandemic, and is training staff in better blended learning models and trauma-informed care.
“What we learned when we shut down and did remote learning is that we do not have those skills,” said Jill Ackerman, Lima schools superintendent. “It was not the best instruction, so we are now going to spend three years to get our staff trained in blended learning.”
Everything Lima schools is using pandemic relief funding for is directly tied to the pandemic, whether that be purchasing classroom furniture so students can stay distanced or investing in cleaning supplies and air filters, Ackerman said.