After a year of unprecedented challenges, the $423 million allocated to districts in Northeast Pennsylvania gives educators a chance to make investments and a difference in the lives of students, leaders say.
“It’s been a difficult year for everyone,” Scranton Superintendent Melissa McTiernan said. “This is something that is exciting, and it’s going to benefit our kids. It’s going to benefit our community. It’s going to give us an opportunity to prioritize for our kids.”
Through three separate bills, the federal government authorized the money, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds.
Districts received the first funds, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, in May. The $28.6 million allocated to the districts in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties allowed schools to distribute laptops to children for remote learning and buy cleaning supplies and protective equipment to help buildings reopen.
The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, enacted in December, will provide the districts with $132 million. The latest, through the American Rescue Plan, will give area districts $263 million. Of that, at least 20% must be spent on helping students overcome the learning losses of the last year.
“We need to support the kids,” Abington Heights Superintendent Michael Mahon, Ph.D., said. “We recognize that ground has been lost.”
Each district or charter school receives relief money using a formula proportional to what they receive in federal Title I funds. That means that schools whose students have the greatest need generally receive the most in funding.
Schools can use the rest of the funding for a wide range of activities, including food service, professional training, technology, sanitization and cleaning supplies, summer and after-school programs, mental health support and some building repairs, such as ventilation improvements. Funds must be used by September 2024.
All schools statewide closed from mid-March 2020, through the end of the 2019-20 school year. Some local districts reopened fully in the fall, but most stayed virtual or opened in a hybrid mode — a combination of in-person and remote learning — through at least the fall and winter.
Even districts that offered full in-person learning know students have struggled over the last year. Districts in Northeast Pennsylvania must spend at least $52.6 million of the American Rescue Plan funds on helping students regain what they’ve lost.
Many districts plan tutoring programs and summer school, which won’t be mandatory, but will be free for students. Plans should be announced in the next month or two.
At North Pocono, the district plans to offer a five- to six-week program this summer for all students.
“We want to open it up to everyone, no matter what level you’re at,” Superintendent Bryan McGraw said. “This additional funding, I think, will close some of the achievement gaps we have.”
The Western Wayne School District plans to start an after-school program for struggling students and offer a mid-to-late summer program to help bring students up to grade level.
“The funds are tremendous help and very much needed,” Superintendent Matthew Barrett, Ed.D., said. “Our tax base can only cover so much.”
With the first round of COVID-19 relief funding, districts focused on immediate needs, such as laptops for remote learning. The districts had always planned to increase the amount of technology available to students, and the pandemic quickly necessitated it. The funds made purchasing the equipment possible. Districts also spent money on cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, such as masks and face shields. The Carbondale Area School District also hired a service to provide extra cleaning during the day, such as high-touch areas and bathrooms, Superintendent Holly Sayre said.
Money from the second and third rounds of funds will allow the districts to make greater investments. Superintendents said they will be careful not to spend the funds on recurring expenses they cannot afford after the money is spent.
“This is a one-time infusion of funds. It’s a really big opportunity for the district,” Mid Valley Superintendent Patrick Sheehan said. “We have to really be cautious and strategic in how we approach the use of funds.”
Many districts have formed committees and hold regular meetings to determine the best use of funds.
The Scranton School District could use some of its $57 million to upgrade building ventilation systems, update curriculum and start a cyber program for elementary students. Officials plan to unveil a plan near the end of April.
While the one-time funds will not help the district leave financial recovery, the funds present a unique opportunity to make improvements.
“It’s what kids need and what kids deserve,” McTiernan said.