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Building Upgrades, SEL: 100 Large & Urban Districts Plan Their Pandemic Recovery

Building Upgrades, SEL: 100 Large & Urban Districts Plan Their Pandemic Recovery

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Since the year 2020, the federal government has allocated a total of $189.5 billion to schools for COVID-19 recovery initiatives. However, it is important to understand how this funding is being utilized. The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) is helping to address this question by creating a new database that provides detailed information on the post-COVID recovery strategies implemented by 100 large school districts in the United States. These strategies have been made possible through the federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.

The assessment conducted by CRPE is based on a year-long examination of the districts’ spending plans, proposed budgets, and publicly available recovery spending strategies for the 2021-2022 academic year. The scope of the review is limited to information that is accessible to the public.

The strategies outlined offer insights into how the nation’s largest school districts are approaching postpandemic recovery and what the transition towards a new normal may involve. This release is part of CRPE’s new pandemic data tracking site, which allows the public to access and download over two years’ worth of pandemic-era district data and analysis.

This work builds on CRPE’s recently published "State of the American Student" report, which urges states and districts to establish measurable objectives for pandemic recovery. Failure to do so may result in a generation of students ill-equipped for higher education or the workforce. The data serves as a call to action for districts and states to promptly utilize their federal funding to ensure that every student from the COVID generation can fully recover.

Highlights from the review include:

– The majority of large urban districts prioritize improving facilities, and many intend to invest in various forms of support for students and teachers.

– Eight recovery strategies stand out in district plans for ESSER spending. These strategies include facility upgrades, social-emotional support, technology integration, professional development, extended learning opportunities, mental health resources, tutoring, and internet connectivity/access.

– Districts also aim to implement student-centered recovery strategies. Some districts have provided specific plans to accelerate student learning and well-being using evidence-based strategies and small-group interventions. Additionally, districts are considering investments in career and postsecondary pathways to strengthen students’ future prospects. A significant portion of districts plan to re-engage students or increase enrollment, while others are investing in new assessment systems to capture academic and social-emotional data more effectively.

– However, districts’ investments in staff and parents are less clearly defined. While many districts plan to offer professional development for teachers, fewer districts provide specific strategies for recruitment, such as strengthening teacher pipeline programs or university partnerships. Similarly, parent engagement is mentioned less frequently, with only a small number of districts committing to improving communications with families or offering new leadership opportunities to parents and community stakeholders.

– District plans vary in terms of the level of detail and the range of strategies shared. Some districts began sharing recovery ideas and involving stakeholders in planning sessions as early as last spring, while others have not yet communicated their full plans or sought public input. Buffalo Public Schools in New York and the Montgomery County School District in Maryland are notable examples of districts that have shared detailed plans outlining a range of new support systems for students, staff, and parents. For instance, Buffalo Public Schools will provide an extended school day and year, small-group instruction, and specialized programs for students with special needs or who are multilingual and/or Native American. The district will utilize data to identify student needs and hire intervention staff accordingly. They also have plans for an engagement program, where parent leaders will support other families in their schools and attend monthly school-based management team meetings. Buffalo Public Schools will offer professional development in STEM, Advanced Placement, and anti-racism instruction, and provide staff members with self-paced virtual training opportunities.

To summarize, CRPE’s examination sheds light on how federal funds are being utilized for COVID-19 recovery efforts in large school districts across the country. It highlights areas of priority, such as facility improvements and student support services, while also identifying areas that require further attention, such as recruitment strategies for teachers and parental engagement. The varying levels of detail and the range of recovery strategies among districts underscore the need for effective planning and communication to ensure the successful implementation of recovery initiatives.

Effective and timely action is required for recovery spending to commence promptly.

Despite the mounting evidence of significant learning loss and mental health needs among students, the majority of school districts have only utilized a small portion of the stimulus funds thus far. This approach may have been justified during the previous school year, as districts faced various disruptions caused by surges in virus cases and labor shortages. They needed time to incorporate stakeholder input and strategic plans into their spending decisions for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.

Fortunately, the start of the 2022-23 school year is proving to be the least disruptive period since the beginning of the pandemic. This presents an opportune moment for districts to follow through on their plans and clearly articulate how they will restore and enhance the learning environment for students, as well as improve the working conditions for adults.

Our analysis reveals that larger urban districts are primarily focusing on one-time investments in infrastructure, but they are less specific about their strategies for addressing the post-pandemic needs of students, staff, and families. While the stimulus funds are a temporary injection of resources, districts still have the chance to make substantial, multi-year investments in services and programs that can better support staff and students. Improving learning and working conditions is equally important, if not more so, than facility or technological upgrades. This is especially crucial considering the prevalent reports of teacher burnout and the significant decline in enrollment of 1.3 million students between 2020 and 2022. Therefore, districts must combine long-term investments in their personnel and systems with short-term investments in infrastructure.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that plans remain theoretical until they are put into action. Districts require more clarity regarding the revised ESSER deadlines from the Education Department to effectively execute their spending strategies. Regardless, given that the stimulus funds may expire as early as 2024, it is crucial for districts to begin conscientiously utilizing them now. Furthermore, since few parents are aware of the existence of stimulus funding, districts must effectively communicate their spending plans and actively seek input from stakeholders.

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