Delaware schools received millions in relief funding. Where is the money going?
Ventilation systems to bring buildings into the 21st century. Funding for after-school and summer programs to help make up for learning loss. Money to support nutrition programs in school cafeterias.
These are some of the places money allocated to schools in Delaware will end up.
Schools around the country received $122 billion as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March. It was the largest one-time infusion of federal money for schools in American history.
Since March 2020, the federal government has provided $190 billion in aid to schools, more than four times what the U.S. Education Department spends on K-12 schools in a typical year, the Associated Press reported.
Delaware's relief funds
Delaware received about $637 million of relief funds, according to Education Department data, which will and has been used to help schools return to normalcy and make upgrades to staffing and infrastructural needs after the pandemic disrupted learning over two school years and is already affecting a third.
Laurisa Schutt, the executive director of First State Educate, a nonprofit dedicated to catalyzing radical change in education by activating the power of Delawareans, said this is a "once in a lifetime opportunity to really push these structural bucket lists for superintendents.
"This is one of the first times that this amount of money has been given directly to districts," Schutt said. "It’s almost like this is a test for flexibility.
"If you think about it, this is really the only time we can address the air quality for example."
How flexible schools and districts will get remains to be seen. The Delaware Department of Education is in the process of approving district- and school-level plans that were due at the end of August for spending the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding from the American Rescue Plan.
The third round of funding is the largest of the three rounds. Delaware received $43.5 million from CARES Act funding last March. It received another $182.9 million as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act last December.
The American Rescue Plan sent $410.9 million to Delaware.
Allocations under the first round of funding have to be spent by the end of 2022. Second-round funds must be spent by the end of 2023, and third-round funding must be spent by the end of 2024.
The legislation mandated that schools reserve at least 20% of the funds to address learning loss.
It also prioritized students who have experienced the greatest disruptions in learning due to the pandemic. Students in low-income households saw greater disruptions, data has shown.
Statewide school assessment numbers, which officials said should be presented in the proper context, dropped greatly, and especially among low-income students.
An example in Delaware of the allocation process based on performance and income can be seen by looking at two charter schools less than 5 miles apart in Wilmington.
EastSide Charter serves a high percentage of low-income students. The 450-student school received $4.5 million over the three rounds of funding.
Charter School of Wilmington, meanwhile, has a small percentage of low-income students and is one of Delaware's top-performing schools. It is receiving just over $180,000 over the three rounds of funding.
Here's how some schools are using the funds
The funds at EastSide will be used to make two major improvements: add air conditioning and staffing mental health resources, which EastSide will spend nearly $1 million on. The school will also spend thousands on summer programming and addressing learning loss, as well as technology improvements.
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Another charter, Wilmington's Great Oaks, will spend $570,000 of its $2.8 million on learning loss-related items like "purchasing and introducing high-quality instructional materials and curricula," according to its spending plan. It will also spend $568,000 to address student needs by hiring a college and career counselor; two social workers; two assistant deans of students; a behavioral health specialist; and another high school teacher.
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At the district level, Christina School District is receiving $83 million, the most money in the state. Red Clay, the state's largest district, is receiving $73.1 million. Colonial ($47.7 million), Indian River ($45.6 million) and Capital ($41.4 million) districts round out the top five.
Indian River will spend $10.8 million, easily satisfying the 20% threshold, on addressing learning loss from the pandemic. It will do this by "employing teachers and purchasing goods and services that include, but are not limited to, digital curriculum, reading and math interventionists, and instructional coaches," according to spending plans.
"It’s not a free for all," said Tammy Smith, Indian River's director of business, referring to some of the requirements outlined in various legislation. "To a certain extent, we’re using the money to propel us into the future.
"We’re making improvements on the processes that we already have in place."
The district "will provide summer school programming that will focus on accelerating learning for participating students such as the use of preview to prepare for the future school years and interventions to fill the unfinished learning gaps," according to spending plans.
This past summer, Indian River had around 3,000 kids in summer programming, according to spokesperson David Maull. It was the largest summer program the district ever ran.
"It was something our parents really wanted," Maull said.
Indian River will also use the money to hire employees to address the needs of students from low-income households and bilingual students. It also allocated $2.4 million to employing remote teachers for students who require a remote academy during the 2021-2022 school year.
Additional spending includes $3.5 million on technology and $3 million on "mental health screeners, services, and supports for students and staff affected by the COVID-19 school closures and reopening."
Add all of those up, and it's easy to see how millions can be spent pretty quickly.
According to the Indian River plans, it will track the effectiveness of the expenditures on new hires "through written evaluations of staff members." It will track learning loss makeup through observation and based on testing results. For its mental health resources, effectiveness will be tracked in the "monitoring of counselors and processes and analysis of student data."
Schutt, the First State Educate director, said she'd like to see a community-based review committee to keep track of how schools and districts are effectively spending the financial resources.
"We’re not saying 'here are the outcomes you have to have,'" she said. "We’re saying, 'OK, is this happening and how is it working and what do you need?'"
Another district in Sussex County, Woodbridge, had its third round of funding approved. It will spend $7.7 million of the $11.2 it received from the rescue plan to improve indoor air quality. Specifically, according to Woodbridge's plans, it will repair and replace HVAC systems and possibly windows in two major projects at two of the district's oldest buildings.
Woodbridge said it will fulfill the 20% learning loss requirement by spending $2.25 million on 12 new positions in the district. They include academic intervention teachers, math coaches, a credit recovery teacher and more. The positions are funded for two years.
How the Education Department used funds
A chunk of the millions to Delaware schools also went to the state's Education Department, which spent money on things like virus testing programs, vaccination events for educators and school staff members, virtual learning improvements, social and emotional needs in schools, nutritional programs and more.
The department said it engaged with the public in the spring to assess where funds were needed most.
At the district level, discussions were to be had during summer school board meetings.
But it's unclear how engaged the public really was in the process. In some districts, public comment periods toward the end of summer were used for parents to speak out against mask mandates and featured little, if any, discussion about the spending of relief funds.
"We are spending a lot of time around a mask mandate that was already decided instead of talking about issues that are really enduring issues," Schutt said.
Smith, the Indian River business director, said discussions were had with "various stakeholder groups" including teachers and administrators. She said last week that she had yet to hear from a random person in the public about the spending.
Schutt said that First State Educate had been having conversations with many community stakeholders throughout the process. What people were looking for in the statewide spending depended on who you'd ask. A businessperson with no children, for example, might have a different outlook than a parent or other community leader.
One thing that is clear, however: the results of this spending won't be known for a few years. Those who received resources have three more years to spend all of them.
"We’re going to be able to see in the next three years how different groups of people decided to spend funds and what outcomes came," Schutt said.
"I’d love to see, in five years' time, because of the pivots that some districts made, look where their kids are now."