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State still reviewing $2B COVID relief funds for schools

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama State Department of Education says it has approved about half of the applications from K-12 schools for their share of the $2 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The funds are a part of the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds sent to schools earlier this year as a way to mitigate concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Alabama’s total allocations for K-12 schools is around $3.1 billion for all three rounds of ESSER funding.

The state’s nearly 140 school systems in Alabama could submit their applications for how they would like to spend their ESSERIII allocations by the end of August. The funds went directly to the systems, but state approval is needed before it can be spent.

Dr. Molly Killingsworth, the director of federal programs at ALSDE, told Alabama Daily News that since most schools looked to address COVID-19-learning loss with previous rounds of federal money, this time they’re looking for more expensive evidence-based learning programs to fit their needs.

“Our advice to them was, this is a large sum of money that we have received in a short period of time and they have to spend in a relatively short period of time, so we want them to think differently,” Killingsworth said. “…what are some things that you want to do but you ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do.”

Some schools are looking at installing more dual enrollment courses, getting more students to take Advanced Placement exams or getting more of their teachers’ national board certified, Killingsworth said.

Schools have until September 2024 to spend the ESSER III funds and each school’s allocation is based on the district’s poverty levels.

Killingsworth explained that some of the schools’ applications had to be sent back due to budget requests not matching their explanations, the requests not falling under the allowable usages for APR funds or just further clarification needed.

“If after a week or so, if we notice they haven’t sent in a revised application then we reach out and tell them about our office hours where they can talk to us about any questions or issues they have,” Killingsworth said.

However, Killingsworth said she expects most if not all applications will be approved by mid-October. Once their applications are approved, they will be able to use those funds immediately.

Under the ARP guidelines for allowable usage of the funds, school districts have to use at least 20% addressing learning loss through implementing evidence-based interventions or things like summer school programs.

Killingsworth said that is happening but also said schools are looking to make physical changes to their facilities too like touchless water fountains or temperature reading devices for when children enter schools.

If schools are looking to hire more personnel like math or reading coaches, Killingsworth said they have asked each school to show how they will sustain that position after the funding is gone.

“It could be things like making sure that coach works with students but also the teachers as well with doing things like professional development, so that three years from now when the money is no longer there, you feel that teacher can do the same things these instructional coaches were doing,” Killingsworth said.

Summer learning

Some of the previous ESSR funding was used on summer learning programs this year. State Superintendent Eric Mackey said summer school programs witnessed record participation as schools try to recover learning loss suffered during a disrupted school year.

Results from some summer programs like the Birmingham-based Summer Adventures in Learning released that their students gained 3.2 months in math and 2.6 months in reading, both representing a record high for academic growth in their programs.

According to their pre-camp assessments, students began this summer with the lowest reading and math proficiency rates in SAIL’s history.

SAIL supports 35 independent learning programs that enroll more than 2,000 students across the state. While they said their enrollment is still below pre-pandemic levels, SAIL did see an 85% completion rate this summer.

ALSDE in their budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 does not include any funding for summer or after-school programs to handle the requirements of the Alabama Literacy Act because it is being taken care of by the ESSER funds.

For fiscal year 2021 the state gave ALSDE $18.5 million to conduct summer programs for K-3 graders who were struggling with reading, but thanks to the federal COVID relief funds, that has freed up that money at least for the next couple of years.

State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, chairs the House Education Policy Committee and told ADN she hasn’t heard any complaints from schools about a lack of funding for literacy teaching needs.

“I didn’t hear anybody talking about how they would have done more if they would have had more revenue for that,” Collins said.

She has heard that summer schools saw a great increase in numbers this summer and is looking forward to seeing more data on how they have helped earn back the learning losses.

“If we use these federal dollars for quality summer school programs for three years, last summer and the next two years, we’re going to have excellent trending data about what’s working and if something is really making a difference for student achievement then I can assure you we’re going to fund that,” Collins said.

Testing scores for third-grade readers are expected to be made public during next week’s state school board meeting.

Depending on what the scores show, it may push the Alabama Legislature to again attempt to delay the Literacy Act’s hold back provision for third graders who are not proficient in reading. As the law stands now, students would be held back at the end of this academic year.

Results from the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program released last month showed overall disappointing results for student achievement last school year. Mackey said he expects the reading scores under the Literacy Act to trend in the same direction but couldn’t say just how much.


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