COVID education funds aimed at extra classroom time help offset learning disruptions

State Superintendent Eric Mackey told legislators today about efforts to use education funds, including the latest round of federal dollars provided by Congress for COVID-19 relief, to help students make up the learning time they’ve missed because of the pandemic.

Mackey gave a presentation and answered questions at the State House as lawmakers began budget hearings in preparations for the legislative session, which starts Feb. 2.

The most recent coronavirus relief package from Congress, approved in December, will send $899 million to Alabama for public schools. The money is in addition to what Alabama received to support education last spring from the Coronavirus Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Mackey said the law requires that 90{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}, or about $800 million, go to local school systems for needs related to the pandemic, including helping students make up the learning they have lost because of pandemic disruptions. Schools can also use the money, called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, to improve facilities and infrastructure to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, and to purchase education technology.

Mackey said the State Department of Education is asking school districts to offer expanded classroom time and tutoring for students. He said school districts will apply for the federal funds as reimbursements for the costs of those programs.

“We are requiring them to do an application and a plan and a budget to tell us how they intend to spend the money to at least show that all the districts have taken time to think through the process,” Mackey said. “We are asking them to focus the vast majority of that on learning loss. Either extending the school year, before- and after-school tutoring, summer school, Saturday school, and those kind of things.”

The state has until September 2023 to spend the funds, Mackey said.

Mackey said teachers are reporting that students are struggling academically because of the loss of classroom time and routine caused by the virus.

“We haven’t done the big state assessment at the end of the year,” Mackey said. “But the best information we get is from what teachers are doing in the classroom. And they’re telling us that students are falling behind in many areas. A lot of that has to do with being quarantined, being in and out of school, the lack of continuity. We know from early childhood psychology that one thing children need is consistency.”

Ten percent of the $899 million will go to statewide programs. Mackey said some of that will be used for professional development for teachers. He said the intent overall is to use most of the almost $90 million to improve math learning in early grades.

The superintendent explained several other areas where the pandemic has affected schools and the budget request for the 2022 fiscal year.

Mackey presented an overall budget request of $5.2 billion for 2022, almost 10{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} more than this year. Included in that is $4.4 billion for local school systems, an increase of 6.7{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} over this year. The rest would go to the State Department of Education and other programs.

Other funding issues Mackey discussed today were related to the pandemic.

Total public school enrollment in Alabama fell by 9,760 students in fall 2020 as compared to the previous year, about a 1.3{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} drop, to about 718,000. State funding to local school systems is based on enrollment.

As part of its budget request, the State Department of Education proposed offsetting any funding cuts to local districts caused by reduced enrollment with a one-time subsidy to close the gap and prevent having to reduce the number of teachers and staff for what is not expected to be a permanent loss of students.

“We believe that the vast majority of those 9,700 students will be back in the fall,” Mackey said. “Some of them have already come back. What we don’t want is to have at the end of this year school districts saying that because of state funding, ‘I’m going to have to lay off teachers,’ and then they come back and have overcrowded classrooms in the fall and have to hire teachers again. We’re trying to introduce consistency to the program. So, what this does is it takes that gap and just fills the hole.”

Mackey said most school districts lost enrollment this year. The reductions hit every grade statewide except seventh, eighth, 10th, and 11th, according to a chart from the Department of Education. The biggest drop was in kindergarten, which had about 53,000 students, 3,000 fewer that last year. Kindergarten is not mandatory in Alabama.

Overall, the proposed budget would apply $95 million to the “COVID-19 hold harmless/staff stabilization allocation.”

The budget request for school nurses next year is $60 million, almost double this year’s $34 million allocation. Mackey said the pandemic reinforced the value of having nurses on campuses. Statewide, there are 804 registered nurses and 600 licensed practical nurses in schools. Mackey said some large schools have four, five, or six nurses but some schools have to share nurses or have a single LPN.

Barbara Cooper, secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, presented a budget request of $160 million, $28 million more than this year. Most of that increase, $24 million, would go to the state’s prekindergarten program, First Class, which would receive a total of $151 million.

The National Institute for Early Education Research has recognized First Class for meeting every quality benchmark for prekindergarten programs for 14 straight years. The program is available to 37{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of Alabama 4-year-olds. The requested funding increase would raise that to 44{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} and provide access to 3,000 children on a waiting list.

Cooper said the goal is to increase access to 70{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} by 2026.

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