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More than $1.8 billion flows into schools in the Washington region to help amid pandemic

An unprecedented infusion of federal funds is flowing into school systems across the country, with the Washington region expected to pull in more than $1.8 billion for school districts planning summer-school expansions, new virtual academies, extra teacher jobs and more mental health services.

Federal money has already been used to buy tablets and Chromebook laptops, expand access to Internet services and stock school buildings with piles of protective gear for in-person learning.

The list of other needs, after more than a year of unimagined difficulty and disruption, is long: tutoring, mental health support, HVAC upgrades, training for teachers and staff members.

In Prince George’s County, school leaders expect to receive nearly $275 million from the most recent federal rescue package — adding to $187 million from two previous ones. The system is Maryland’s second largest, with an enrollment of more than 131,000 and a majority of students from low-income families.

“It’s like winning an educational lottery,” said Monica Goldson, chief executive of Prince George’s County Public Schools. “And for a school district that represents 91 percent children of color, what it does for us is begin to allow us to level the playing field where we typically would not have received funds that could have covered so many things that we needed.”

The windfall is part of a series of recovery packages passed by Congress, with the largest chunk coming as part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

“This is the largest single investment in public education the feds have ever made,” said Michael Griffith, a senior researcher and policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on education. “It’s a massive amount of money, but there are all sorts of costs associated with this [pandemic].”

As school officials grapple with spending choices, the great challenge is to invest wisely, in ways that really count. School systems have wide discretion, though at least 20 percent of money from the most recent package must target learning loss.

“You shouldn’t just do the same-old, same-old,” Griffith said. “This should be stuff on top of what you are already doing.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March last year, major education funding has come from the Cares Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and most recently the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law last month. Deadlines for spending or obligating the money vary, with the latest set at September 2024.

The federal money goes to states, which keep a portion and parcel most of it out to school systems based on funding levels for Title 1 assistance, which supports the education of students from low-income families.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school system, with more than 161,000 students, is slated to get $252 million in American Rescue Plan funds, following more than $172 million from the previous funding pots.

Among the system’s plans: a comprehensive free summer program for all grades, tutoring, interventions for students with disabilities, mental health support, professional development and improvements to HVAC systems. A new virtual academy is also in the works.

Partly hidden by isolation, many of the nation’s schoolchildren struggle with mental health

“It is going to give us a huge head start on addressing what the impact is,” said Derek Turner, chief of engagement, innovation and operations for the school system in Montgomery County.

Turner said decisions are based on where the pandemic has hit hardest, what the law allows and which efforts would have the most immediate effect.

Still, Turner said that although some may expect a blast of money all at once, school leaders want to be strategic, funding efforts that lead to positive outcomes. “Lots of money comes with lots of responsibility,” he said.

Summer programs a priority

School systems in Northern Virginia are prioritizing the same overarching goal: helping students recover from learning losses caused by the pandemic and by online schooling. Summer instruction is paramount, officials said.

Fairfax County’s school system, with 180,000 students, expects nearly $189 million from the American Rescue Plan, along with more than $160 million from other sources.

By comparison, Loudoun County is getting more than $43 million from the combination of federal packages, Arlington County approximately $35 million and Alexandria City Public Schools about $57 million.

In Alexandria, the school district plans to offer summer school for all — and will send some of the most vulnerable children inside summer classrooms four days a week. The more recent federal money will probably help, said Dominic Turner, Alexandria’s chief financial officer.

“We’re hoping to use it to be able to reignite our students’ passion to learn and our teachers’ passion to teach,” he said.

Alexandria, with 16,000 students, is divvying up the funds among four areas: students’ social, academic and emotional well-being; technology infrastructure; building upgrades to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus; and classroom monitors who help supervise in-person learning.

Remote learning has presented unique challenges for students, like Ana Reyes, who are also immigrants and speak English as as second language. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Lindsey Sitz/The Washington Post)

To make its decisions, Alexandria looked to teams of staffers tasked with thinking through specific areas of school operations. “We just leaned on those teams to be able to decide how to use this money to help our students,” Turner said.

In Loudoun, staffers have recommended that $7.7 million of the school district’s American Rescue Plan funds be used for “expanded summer school to address learning loss,” spokesman Wayde Byard said. The rest will go to health mitigation efforts and to ensuring that teachers can deliver quality lessons to all students for the rest of the pandemic, he said.

Tens of thousands of children in Washington suburbs return to in-person school

In D.C. Public Schools, the influx of funding will total nearly $300 million from the three federal funding pots, according to school officials.

And each school’s budget reflects some of that federal aid. Drew Elementary would get $185,083. Kelly Miller Middle School is expecting $282,934. And McKinley Technology High School is getting nearly $272,000 to accelerate learning recovery and support social-emotional well-being.

Louise Jones, principal at McKinley, said she and other middle and high school principals are steering some of the funds to a weeks-long summer program for middle-schoolers and rising ninth- and 10th-graders, who have spent little, if any, time on campus. Students would share their pandemic experiences, get acquainted and possibly take placement tests so the school knows how to serve them.

Jones also said she wants to offer more direct instruction during the academic year but worries it will be tough to find qualified tutors to hire at a time of such high demand. At the same time, vendors are constantly calling and emailing to pitch their services and wares.

“We are always excited to get money, but I don’t want to waste it,” Jones said.

The D.C. public school system and most other districts are not talking about hiring new teachers with this one-time infusion of money. D.C.’s two biggest charter networks, however, say they will be hiring more instructors, many of whom they hope to be able to keep even after the money runs out.

In D.C., nearly half of the city’s public school students are in one of the 66 charter networks, which will receive a total of $241 million in federal funds. Each network receives a portion of the aid based on enrollment and the needs of their students, according to city officials.

Charters adding staffers

KIPP DC — the largest charter network, with more than 7,000 students — will be receiving a total of $45 million in federal aid. Adam Rupe, a spokesman for KIPP DC, said it expects to spend $10 million on additional staffing for the next academic year. Among the hires: a dozen “accelerator” teachers with at least three years of experience who will work with small groups of students who “have felt the biggest impact of the pandemic.”

On top of that, more classroom teachers will be needed to accommodate smaller class sizes, given that social distancing rules will probably remain in place. In all, KIPP is hoping to hire 55 additional teachers — about three per school — and 34 extra “resident teachers,” who are part of the network’s teacher training program.

The network will also be hiring an additional nurse per campus and additional virtual teachers for students it expects to remain virtual next academic year.

“We are focused on next year, and we are hoping next year we will be able to fill in those pandemic gaps, but if we aren’t, we’ll look at year two,” Rupe said.

Friendship, the city’s second-largest charter network, is expecting to receive about $39 million and plans to use it to increase its teaching staff by 20 percent. Each of its schools will get at least three more teachers and four assistant teachers, said Candice Tolliver-Burns, a spokeswoman for Friendship. The network also plans to spend money to purchase new technology, hire additional mental health workers and continue its weekly coronavirus testing program.

“We are increasing the number of teachers on each of our pre-K to 12th-grade schools and providing 1-to-1 tutoring that accelerates learning and addresses learning loss during and after the school day,” Tolliver-Burns said.

The District’s school system has said it plans to spend tens of millions of dollars on extra tutoring, teacher training, outdoor classrooms and technology. But school leaders have not yet said how they would spend the latest infusion of money from the American Rescue Plan.

In Prince George’s, Goldson said the school system’s first wave of money — from the Cares Act — paved the way for the system to go 1-to-1 with technology, giving each student a Chromebook computer or tablet, while also paying for Internet service and hotspots.

Last to return in Maryland, Prince George’s County opens its schools

The system’s 10,000 teachers have become tech-savvy, she said. “When you walk into the classroom, the amount of technology that we’re using now to connect, to engage with our students, we could never have thought of,” she said.

Among new ideas is the possibility of using cameras to record master teachers who are willing to be models for other educators.

“We’re trying to utilize this opportunity and the use of funds to look at a new PGCPS — not go back to the old way,” she said.

The district will focus on learning losses — and learning supports for the most at-risk students, along with mental health support, student and staff technology, professional learning and HVAC upgrades, Goldson said. There are already plans for an online campus for middle and high school, after-school tutoring and support for English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Arlington, with 27,000 students, recently gave a more detailed picture of how it is spending its Cares money.

Nearly $118,000 is slated for special-education services and to help students make up for academic setbacks, and $75,000 for a summer academy. Pandemic cleaning is getting $30,000 — for supplies and pay — and approximately $24,000 will be used to hire engineering firms to assess building ventilation systems and outline any upgrades needed.

Fairfax officials, meanwhile, said they are working on how to spend their American Rescue Plan money, with proposals expected at a school board meeting this month.

“Math is going to have to be a real focus,” said Virginia Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who cited data showing academic slippage. “And for some kids, there’s going to have to be summer school or year-round school. And we don’t pay our teachers to work year-round, so we’re going to have to find the money to fund that.”

He added that the influx of money might make it possible for school districts across Virginia to offer teachers a 5 percent pay raise. So far, most districts in Northern Virginia have proposed teacher raises ranging between 2 percent and 3 percent.

“A lot of places should be pretty flush once this is all done,” Surovell said. “And we really have a long way to go to make up our teacher salaries; our teachers have been through a lot these past 12 months.”

'Aim for quality over quantity'

Experts emphasized the importance of spending wisely.

“The only recommendations that will help students thrive are ones implemented thoughtfully, with fidelity, and with attention to detail,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “Aim for quality over quantity, and save some steps for later.”

Petrilli said the extra help is important but cannot replace what students need from core programs. “Tutoring cannot substitute for high-quality curricula, and mental health services can’t take the place of a positive school culture,” he said. “No amount of extended learning time can compensate for not making optimal use of the regular school day.”

He said he considered a high-quality curriculum as “job number one.”

Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said school systems and states should put the reduction of inequalities at the forefront of the response.

“Ideally this would be money that would be recuperative on a short-term basis and have something sustainable on a long-term basis to help permanently narrow achievement gaps,” he said.

School systems should also look for ways to increase opportunities for students to be exposed to role models of color, in summer programs and especially in tutoring, Hansen said.

“We have a lot of evidence that whenever students are exposed to teachers who look like them, they have improved test scores, stronger engagement in schools, fewer disciplinary write-ups and several other positive outcomes,” he said.

Laura Meckler contributed to this report.

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