USD 232 focusing federal emergency relief on getting students caught up

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USD 232 in De Soto is planning to spend most of its federal COVID-19 emergency relief dollars on hiring new positions that will help students get caught up academically. Multiple new hires will also help with social-emotional wellness and support for students with autism or disabilities. File photo courtesy USD 232.

After a challenging school year for students, teachers and families alike, USD 232 in De Soto is spending or allocating millions of federal emergency relief on learning needs and mental health support.

The school district has been allocated just under $2.6 million from the first two rounds of the federal Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The district is expected to receive an additional $4.2 million from the third round of funds.

District officials are planning to spend much of those funds on hiring nearly a dozen new employees to help students get caught up in their learning and literacy, as well as students with autism, and focusing on social-emotional wellness among students with anxiety or stress from the past year.

In a presentation July 12 to the USD 232 Board of Education, Superintendent Frank Harwood gave a rundown of the district’s ESSER funding allocations and how the district plans to spend the money.

All federal relief is allocated for potential reimbursement from the state of Kansas. USD 232, like all school districts in Kansas, must submit items for approval by the state before the district can be reimbursed.

ESSER I — student resources

In a presentation to the school board last week, Superintendent Frank Harwood (pictured above in a file photo) said the district is collecting information on student learning needs before spending any more emergency funds from the first two rounds of relief.

The district received about $195,000 in ESSER I funds, and has already spent neary 69% of those funds on student resources, including:

  • Expanding the extended school year program for students with disabilities
  • Special education reading resources
  • Elementary reading resources (a problem area for students last year)
  • Supplemental lab resources (for virtual science labs in secondary classrooms)
  • Health services support (for COVID-19 response and contact tracing efforts)

ESSER I funds must be obligated (or targeted to be spent) by September 2022.

ESSER II — learning needs of students

Much of the school district’s second round of funds will support new hires to help with areas such as literacy, learning needs and mental health support. File photo courtesy USD 232.

The district received just under $2.4 million in ESSER II funds, which must be obligated by September 2023. Cater said this round of emergency relief in particular focuses more on the learning needs of students.

The second and third round allocations are comparatively much more than the district’s first round as a result of efforts by the Kansas State Board of Education to distribute funds in a more equitable manner, Cater added.

The district’s first allocation was based solely on the number of Title 1 students in USD 232 — much smaller than other Kansas school districts. The state board of education used a “True Up” formula, a federal funding mechanism that gave more funding to USD 232.

USD 232 has spent just under 77% of ESSER II funds on the following:

  • Hiring a district literacy specialist
  • Hiring a district improvement specialist for special education, specifically for students with disabilities
  • Hiring a district autism specialist (Cater said the district learned that students with autism were particularly impacted by last school year’s challenges)
  • Hiring two additional school improvement specialists (so that every school will now have a specialist) to focus on teacher support and student learning.
  • Hiring an additional social worker to support mental health support and social-emotional wellness of students
  • Hiring two additional nurses to assist with overall student health as well as COVID-related health concerns, a program for students age 18-21 with special needs
  • Hiring a part-time at-risk teacher
  • Hiring two additional teaching positions to reduce class sizes
  • Expanded summer school program with more hands-on learning opportunities
  • Purchasing supplemental resources for reading, math and social-emotional learning

These one-time emergency dollars supporting the new personnel will eventually run out.

“Not knowing what this school year’s going to bring, being able to address that is critical. Having a student whose social-emotional well-being is in a good place puts them in a much better position to be successful academically,” said Alvie Cater, district spokesperson. Above, masked middle schoolers at Mill Creek last school year. File photo courtesy USD 232.

Alvie Cater, district spokesperson, said the district hopes that continued student enrollment growth will allow the costs of those new positions to be absorbed in the district’s annual operating expenses. For instance, the two teaching positions will likely be permanent.

However, if student enrollment doesn’t increase, then it’s possible some of these positions will have to go away after three years.

“They’re valuable because they will help better ascertain what our needs are and provide that support for our teachers and our administrators,” Cater said. “Without these positions, we wouldn’t be as effective in getting to the root of what we need to address.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing the right things and the programs that will actually make a difference, and the support that makes a difference. So those individuals that are on that planned expenditure list are going to be critical to help us do that.”

Student enrollment declined at USD 232, for various reasons such as parents opting for private education or remote learning elsewhere, or families relocating out of the district.

As USD 232 prepares for enrollment this school year, officials want to be prepared to better manage class size enrollment spikes, Cater said.

Meanwhile, the district’s focus on social-emotional wellness efforts will be designed to help students grapple with the stressful school year.

“Not knowing what this school year’s going to bring, being able to address that is critical,” Cater said. “Having a student whose social-emotional well-being is in a good place puts them in a much better position to be successful academically.”

ESSER III — unknown plans

USD 232 expects to receive an additional $4.2 million in the third round of federal ESSER funds. Those dollars must be obligated by September 2024. It’s unknown how much USD 232 will receive for special education.

Meanwhile, regulations for ESSER III are still being finalized by the state, so the district will develop plans for how to spend this round in the coming months, Cater said. The planning process will incorporate stakeholder input as required by state law, as well as student performance data.

“We’re going to be looking at ways to address the impact that COVID-19 has had and continues to have on our elementary and secondary students in their learning,” Cater said. “This is going to be a three-year process to address that.”

The district is collecting additional data on student learning needs before spending or allocating the remainder of ESSER I and II funds.

“What we’re going to do with this school year, especially as we get started and into the first semester, is really identifying where are our students now and where do they need to be, and then with that data, we’re going to be able to develop plans to support our students and improve that learning,” Cater said.