Grand Rapids—Union High School’s hallways may be empty after school, but learning still continues inside its classrooms.
In her room, English teacher Susan Clark reviewed an assignment’s prompt with a small group of students. She asked, “How will you combat inequalities and injustices to keep the legacy of Rosa Parks alive? You have influence; you don’t have to be a teacher to teach your community.”
Clark turned to repeat her question in Spanish to students at the next table. Fluent in English and Spanish, with a little French and Arabic, she encourages students to come regularly to after-school tutoring, and that all languages are welcome.
At another table, senior Andrei Cano worked quietly to answer reflection questions after watching “Beowulf” in class. Andrei is learning English and also speaks Spanish and nurtures his native language, Hmong.
“I’ve been coming to tutoring for a month, and it makes things easier to have tutoring help,” Andrei said.
Investment in tutoring, a direct way to address needs exacerbated by the pandemic, is a major priority for many districts – including Grand Rapids Public Schools. It is on top of the list for using federal COVID-relief allocations to help students catch up after months spent learning virtually, as well as address increased mental health needs. Other priorities include adding counselors, social workers, interventionists and investing in technology.
Big Investments, Careful Planning
A total of $264.15 million is being spread across Kent County’s 20 school districts in three different federal COVID-relief allocations. While the first two rounds of money known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds – part of the 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act – have already been distributed, the third and largest is in the process of reaching school coffers, and Michigan’s plan for allocating the money recently received final approval from the U.S. Department of Education. Districts are also seeing an historic increase in their state funding due to the legislature’s recent move to equalize per-pupil funding for all schools in Michigan.
‘It’s going to take some time for (districts) to figure out how to use it, spend it, how to almost reinvent their districts to do what they want to do for kids based on the new funding stream, compared to what they had a few years ago.’– Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD assistant superintendent for finance and administrative services.
As for the federal dollars, districts have the deadlines of Sept. 30, 2022, Sept. 30, 2023 and Sept. 30, 2024 to use the consecutive allotments of funds, and they have a lot of freedom. The ESSR funds do not come with a lot of restrictions on spending, but districts need to keep in mind the sustainability of their investments, said Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD assistant superintendent for finance and administrative services.
“That’s a tremendous amount of money,” Philipps said. “The downside to that is, it’s one-time money. Everyone will use the money appropriately, everybody will put it in the best way they can figure out, but it’s also a dilemma for local districts because, how do you hire a bunch of staff based on those dollars that might be gone in a few years? Do you create services and not have a funding mechanism for them three years down the road?”
He expects big investments in the area of support services. That’s a major reversal from 10 to 15 years ago, when districts, impacted by the national recession, cut counselors, therapists and other support positions to balance their budgets. “With this increase in funding, I think you are going to see some restoration of those positions,” Philipps said.
The money will also be used for salary increases, pay incentives for teachers and the development of new and innovative programs, he said, but many districts are very much still in the planning phase.
“I think the districts are all a little overwhelmed with all this one-time money to spend,” he said. “It’s going to take some time for them to figure out how to use it, spend it, how to almost reinvent their districts to do what they want to do for kids based on the new funding stream compared to what they had a few years ago.”
Plans are Taking Shape
The county’s largest district, Grand Rapids Public Schools, is receiving a total of $115 million to serve the needs of its more than 15,000 students. About $32 million is planned for additional tutoring, instructional coaches, interventions for reading and math, expanded summer school, and various other programming, student opportunities and curriculums. About $3 million is planned for mental health services including therapists, social workers, community engagement and other resources related to social-emotional support.
Other areas of investment include technology, fine arts, professional learning, facility upgrades, athletics, and student recruitment and retention, said Larry Oberst, GRPS chief financial officer.
The investments are centered on whole-child well being, he said.
“Good holistic health, physical and emotional/mental, is important to create the overall environment where effective teaching and learning can take place.
“Health issues many times lead to missing school, and scholars can’t learn if they are absent. Social/emotional issues with scholars can sometimes cause behavioral issues in the scholar that negatively impacts teaching and learning.”
Kentwood Public Schools is using its total of $24.3 million on needs for students ranging from PPE to social and mental health supports for students including more counselors and social workers. They are also investing in furniture that supports social distancing and larger vans to transport the school’s population of students experiencing homelessness, many of whom live outside the district and rely on provided transportation.
Looking ahead, Todd Bell, executive director of finance and business operation, said the district is open to funding any type of support for staff and students that will help continue and improve education impacted by the pandemic.
The district already used a portion of funds to offer a robust summer program and efforts will continue to include various measures to help students who fell behind while learning virtually. “We are getting creative with credit recovery classes,” he said.
‘Ideas for improvement need to come from inside out. We are looking at many alternatives and listening to staff at all levels to get ideas.’– Kent City Superintendent Mike Weiler
Wyoming Public Schools, which is receiving a total of about $11.85 million in COVID-relief funds, invested its first allotment in virtual teaching staff when many students remained remote last school year. The district also invested in technology such as Chromebooks for students and remote instruction software. Funds have also gone to increase custodial services, said Matt Lewis, assistant superintendent for finance and administration.
The district has also hired a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support coordinator to focus on system-wide school improvement, and added an additional counselor at the high school. And plans are to continue to offer rigorous summer school and after-school programming.
Other plans are still in process, including upgrading HVAC systems at several buildings.
The Sparta school district is using a portion of funds to add staff. The goal, said Superintendent Pete Bush, is “to maintain the smallest class sizes possible” to mitigate lost learning as well as maximize social distancing.
Four additional classes were added at Ridgeview Elementary and after looking at initial numbers the first week of school, another fourth grade class was added.
The district believes that with annual retirements or staff changes averaging about seven or eight per year, they will most likely be able to retain all staff after COVID funds are exhausted.
In addition to teaching staff, every Sparta building now has a Kent School Services Network counselor, and the district added another nurse and a fourth full-time social worker.
A process also has begun to evaluate curriculum needs.
“We know this is an opportunity for curriculum updates that we have had to put on hold during the last number of years,” Bush said.
Kent City Community Schools has added a full-time social worker and a Title 1 counselor. “We are looking hard at one-time expenses without or with minimal legacy costs for these funds,” said Superintendent Mike Weiler.
Child safety concerns led to one major purchase: a bus surveillance system with six cameras per bus. The district hoped to have this in place before school started, but shipping delays put the project on hold.
“Ideas for improvement need to come from inside out,” said Weiler, who is looking to teachers and support staff for suggestions. “We are looking at many alternatives and listening to staff at all levels to get ideas.”
Cedar Springs Public Schools is spending its funds, a total of $5.3 million, to combat learning loss in many ways, said Chris LaHaie, chief financial officer.
“We’ve hired some new positions in literacy, math and technology to give better opportunities for our students. Two of the three positions, in literacy and math, are specifically to support learning loss, and the third one in technology supports all of this new technology that’s been utilized since COVID began, like purchasing online learning software,” he said. “We invested in a new literacy curriculum for K-5 grades to, once again, use it to address learning loss and move that forward, because literacy is obviously a huge thing.”
The district plans to invest in air purification/air cleanliness systems, enhancing facility improvement work already under way and funded by a bond issue.
‘Where You Want to Put Your Funds’
Back at Union High School, senior Brayan Vasquez’s idea for his English 12 essay on combating inequalities and injustices like Rosa Parks is fleshed out during the tutoring session.
Brayan said he stays after school three days a week for tutoring because he finds it “helpful to have Ms. Clark explain things I don’t understand.”
Said Clark: “These students are mostly English Language Learners and they are hardworking and goal oriented. This is where you want to put your funds, because they will make the most of it. Tutoring offers a supportive bridge between the classroom and working on assignments outside of the classroom.”
Jan Holst, Beth Heinen Bell, Alexis Stark and Phil de Haan contributed to this story.