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Districts ready to spend COVID relief dollars — once state allocates them

Learning loss, mental health, PPE top priorities

Multiple Districts — Robust summer programming with a focus on academics, the arts and other engaging learning opportunities is on tap for Wyoming Public Schools, thanks to what could be about $5.1 million in federal COVID relief dollars, said Superintendent Craig Hoekstra.

“Because of these dollars we can really look at what we would have liked to do in the past but couldn’t,” said Hoekstra. He is working with administrators to evaluate needs related to learning loss due to the pandemic and building a plan to best support children and help fill those academic gaps. 

Craig Hoekstra

Wyoming is just one of many area school districts waiting for federal relief funding to address the year-long impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once released from state legislative battles, the funds will go to everything from learning loss and student mental health to personal protective equipment and better building ventilation.  

School districts across the nation will soon receive influxes of federal cash to cover costs related to educating students during the pandemic. Michigan is receiving a total of about $1.725 billion, and local districts are anticipatingfour times more money than they received through allocations in the fall

The  money  to be allocated under the Education Stabilization Fund within the Coronavirus Relief Act is expected to be distributed to districts soon, for use by Sept. 30, 2023. 

To be spent, however, the money must first be allocated by the state Legislature with approval from the governor. As of early February, districts were still waiting because of a state legislative tussle. House and Senate Republicans are tie-barring releasing the money with demands that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cede authority to prohibit in-person instruction or sports to local health departments and have proposed their own plans.

‘Students don’t need to be in a classroom to learn. Students need experiences.’

— Northview Superintendent Scott Korpak

The amount in federal funds each district is likely to receive was determined mostly based on Title I formulas, which provide funds for low-income schools. Those formulas would provide wide swings in funding for Kent County schools. 

According to estimates by Chris Glass, director of legislative affairs for the West Michigan Talent Triangle, Grand Rapids Public Schools (on the high end of allotments), could receive about $39 million dollars, or about $2,786 per pupil. On the low end, East Grand Rapids Public Schools could receive $764,000, or $264 per pupil.

Related story: Superintendent pinpoints funding needs during pandemic and beyond

The money is being distributed in two different pots: 90 percent using Title I formulas and 10 percent distributed by the Michigan Department of Education using a discretionary formula. As proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, that formula would be based 50 percent on a district’s special education population and 50 percent on a per pupil basis, said Kevin Philipps, assistant superintendent of finance for Kent ISD. (The 10 percent discretionary formula has also not been finalized by the state Legislature, with the House and Senate each having their own proposals.)

Kevin Philipps

A ‘Baseline of Need’

There are big differences in the amount of money districts will receive and that’s due to how many students are living in poverty in each district. 

Philipps said some districts have definitely been impacted more by the pandemic and related learning losses than others, but all districts have increased costs, such as personal protective equipment. 

“There are certainly arguments to be made that the districts with higher poverty levels have been disproportionately hit by COVID,” he said, but added, “There should be a recognition that there is a baseline every single district is facing in terms of PPE needs and technology needs. COVID is hitting every single district; it’s just hitting some districts a little harder than others.”

Title I was a simple formula to use for the federal government to get the money out in a hurry, but it needs to be tweaked to properly allocate across the state, he said. The first round of relief funding for districts was also allocated using the same Title I-based formula.

How Districts Are Using Funds

Districts are planning to use funds in a variety of ways. Money can be spent on PPE costs, sanitation and facility ventilation measures; meals for eligible students; partnerships with health departments; technology for online learning and other uses; mental health services and support; and a broad range of ways to get students back on track following nearly a year of disrupted education.

Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Larry Oberst said he’s grateful that in the midst of the COVID-19 challenges, there have also been pieces of good news, such as the unexpected influx of state and federal dollars including what could be about  $39.1 million in federal funds.

“Our biggest responsibility is to spend it in the area of highest needs within the guidelines of the grants,” Oberst added. “That’s why we have put together a diverse subcommittee of educators, business officials, operations, internally to collectively determine where to spend the funds.”

He said GRPS has identified six major categories of needs: academic learning loss; special education; technology; HVAC upgrades; mental health services for students and staff; and professional development.

“We obviously aren’t spending anything until we’re sure we’re going to get it,” he noted. “But we need to plan, and we’re trying to make some allocations based on big buckets, needs we know we have.”

Learning loss is a big area for the district.

“We know students are falling behind,” he said, “and we need to determine how to remediate that.”

Options already under consideration include enhanced summer school programs, after-school programs and more tutoring. All of them could be implemented almost immediately, Oberst said, once the district knows when it will get the funds.

‘COVID is hitting every single district; it’s just hitting some districts a little harder than others.’

— Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of finance

The district also hopes to spend some of the new COVID dollars to boost programs for special education students and for English-language learners. “Special ed is woefully underfunded in this state,” Oberst said.

In-classroom technology will be another area of focus. GRPS has done a good job getting devices in the hands of its students and staff, Oberst said. But now that the district is back to in-person learning under a hybrid model, some of the technology shortfalls in classrooms are becoming apparent.

Also apparent are the needs for GRPS buildings to get up-to-speed when it comes to heating, cooling and ventilation, so HVAC improvements are already on Oberst’s radar when the COVID money comes in.

Mental health concerns will be another priority. The district already had been beefing up its mental health resources prior to the pandemic. The needs there have only been magnified, Oberst said, and hiring mental health professionals and offering things like mental health “first aid” courses for staff will be on the docket in the coming year.

Oberst noted that much of the money the district will receive does not need to be spent until September 2023, so GRPS has essentially four fiscal years in which to spread out the funds. This is in contrast to some earlier COVID-related monies that had strict expiration dates and meant many districts were forced to spend the money in tight timeframes.

Wyoming 

In Wyoming, Hoekstra looks forward to planning extra summer programming and school year tutoring and extended-day learning over the next two years. The focus for high schoolers will be on credit recovery, he said. 

“We need students involved in a summer experience more than ever,” he said.

The district partners with the City of Wyoming to offer Team 21 summer and after-school programming, which is funded by a federal grant allocated by Michigan Department of Education. The plan is to add to offerings in that program and entice as many children as possible to take part. There could be a menu of options like a summer camp.

“We are good stewards of those dollars and we will build a plan to position our kids to be as successful as they can be,” he said.

Scott Korpak

Northview 

For Northview Public Schools, the objectives haven’t changed since the pandemic: “The federal funds are needed,” wrote Superintendent Scott Korpak in an email. “They were needed before the pandemic. Now the need is just greater. The fact that they are one-time requires thoughtful planning to maximize impact for students.”

Northview’s mantra: “Stay focused. Require spending to be structured. Invest in what we know works.”

Korpak outlined three areas of focus:

  • Student growth and achievement, particularly in the area of literacy in the younger grades. Increased enrollment in AP courses. Increased passing rates in algebra and geometry. 
  • Belonging, which includes social and emotional support, and cognitive, emotional and physical well-being.
  • Engagement. Evolving teaching and learning to better connect students with their interests to help them see the importance — and fun — of learning. 

Of particular focus for Northview will be summer learning, Korpak said. That includes high school credit recovery and non-credit refresher courses for those who want to review, as well as tutors for those who show a demonstrated learning gap; expanded freshman orientation; youth sports that go beyond traditional school offerings, such as Zumba and yoga; and field trips.

“In part, this means expanding student options and pathways. Not just during the school year, but during the summer, winter break, spring break, after school and Saturdays,” Korpak said. “Students don’t need to be in a classroom to learn. Students need experiences.” 

Phil de Haan and Morgan Jarema contributed to this story 

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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