With over $1 billion in COVID funding available to school districts, a new report by The School and State Finance Project, ConnCAN, and FutureEd found more than 50% is going toward hiring and training staff, while 20% is being used to address learning loss. At the same time only about 11% of the funding has been spent and it’s unclear how these school districts or the state are tracking the results they are getting from the funds.
There’s also the question of how they will be able to support these programs and initiatives after this funding runs out, Michael Morton of The School and State Finance Project, said.
“These problems are going to outlive the federal funds and it’s up to districts to plan accordingly,” Morton said.
As far as staffing is concerned, some districts are creating new positions: Bethel School District, School District, for example, is paying for a full-time math specialist to support students at its middle school. Columbia School District, which operates a single school, added two full-time positions to create smaller class sizes and more instructional support at the middle school level.
All told, 71% of Connecticut’s local education agencies are adding teachers and interventionists, compared to 59% in the national database.
In contrast, a lower percentage of Connecticut districts plan to invest in recruitment and retention efforts than those nationally. About 5% of the state’s districts are offering bonuses, compared to 11% nationwide.
The Connecticut districts with the highest rates of economically disadvantaged students are putting about half of their Covid-relief allotment toward staffing, while the most affluent localities are using about two-thirds of their funds for that purpose.
In cities, the second-highest spending priority was providing benefits, while suburban districts prioritized bringing in psychologists and mental health professionals, towns focused on hiring summer staff, and rural districts on hiring tutoring staff.
The report said that “given the one-time nature of ESSER funds, Connecticut’s investments in recurring staffing costs raise questions about how these positions will be funded when federal aid is no longer available. A more sustainable approach would be to spend the funds on professional development for existing staff members.”
As far as learning loss is concerned due to the nature of the pandemic, the American Rescue Plan funds mandate that at least 20% should address learning loss.
“All told, Connecticut districts and charters earmarked $229 million to target learning loss, with about $61 million going toward curriculum and instructional materials, $50 million for summer learning programs, and more than $40 million each for afterschool programs and tutoring,” the report states.
The report found that academic recovery accounts for about a quarter of planned expenditures nationally; in Connecticut the total dollar figures fall below spending on staffing and on facilities and operations.
And some districts are not planning to invest their funds in evidence-based interventions but are instead counting personnel expenditures toward meeting the federal 20 % threshold for addressing learning loss.
In response to the isolation and trauma students experienced during the pandemic, more than two-thirds of Connecticut districts are investing a total of $71 million in mental health support, with much of the money focused on behavioral health priorities such as social emotional learning and wraparound services.
The report found that nearly half of the districts earmarked money to bring mental health professionals into schools—a $59 million investment that is counted under staffing in this analysis.
There are differences too between school districts when it comes to spending on mental health. Eighty-one percent of city districts and charters plan to invest in mental and physical health, spending an average of $379 per student. That compares to 59% of rural districts, which are planning to spend $90 per pupil.
Those with greater learning needs or special education were hit especially hard by the pandemic.
The report found that 30% of districts in Connecticut requested money to support students with disabilities, more than twice the share of districts nationally. And nearly one in five districts is planning to set aside money for English language learners. A handful of districts also highlighted specific programs and support for economically disadvantaged children and students of color.
Connecticut districts plan to spend a combined $62 million for higher-need student populations, particularly students with disabilities and English language learners.
While academic programs and staffing dominate Connecticut’s plans for spending federal funding, as much as $238 million in 139 districts will go toward capital projects and operational spending on such needs as transportation and pandemic protections.
For example, Meriden School District is adding air conditioning to four elementary schools. Danbury is conducting a comprehensive overhaul of its HVAC systems, including boilers, air vents, air conditioning, filtration, and other components.
Some of the things the districts plan to invest in won’t even start until 2024 so it’s tough to track results this early in the process.
Morton said it’s best to make sure the information is transparent and the data is easily accessible for parents.