Schools plan for federal funds

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Monroe County’s school districts are preparing to spend the third and largest wave of federal funding aimed at helping students cope with the pandemic. 

Gov. JB Pritzker announced March 31 that Illinois’ school districts would get a total of $7 billion in federal funding for education while also releasing recommendations for how to spend that money. 

The funding comes from the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief Fund, which was created and got approximately $67.8 billion under the Trump Administration before it received $122.7 billion under the Biden Administration. 

That money has come in three increments, with school districts already having access to and spending the first two, both of which were smaller than the third round that is coming. 

The Waterloo School District is set to receive a total of $1,422,316 in ESSER funds, which are allocated based on the number of low-income students in a district.

Waterloo got $520,759 from the first two rounds combined, and Superintendent Brian Charron said much of that funding went toward purchasing Chromebooks so each student in the district could have one for remote learning.

In the Columbia School District, the $279,391 it received from the first two waves went toward hiring four elementary teachers dedicated solely to remote learning, which helped it bring more students back in school more of the time. 

“I took these funds that we got, and that’s what got us back in school sooner than others,” Superintendent Chris Grode said. 

For its part, the Valmeyer School District used the $63,889 it received from the first two rounds of funding to purchase personal protective equipment, sanitation equipment and supplies and technology to help with remote learning, per Superintendent Eric Frankford.

 Frankford said districts should be able to apply for the third and largest allocation of ESSER funds around July 1, though they are still waiting for guidelines on how that money can be spent. 

When announcing the funds, Pritzker also released a 180-page “learning renewal guide” assembled by the P-20 Learning Council, which includes the state superintendent and various leaders in education from across the state. Over 300 people had input in that document, which provides recommendations for what districts should spend money on but does not require them to follow that advice. 

The guide includes 12 strategies focused on topics like supporting enrollment, retention, and re-engagement, expanding the school day and year, providing out-of-classroom learning experiences, improving hybrid and remote learning models and designing an integrated education/workforce strategy. 

“I’m committed to making sure that Illinois leads the nation in assisting schools to make this new $7 billion count over the next several years to overcome the pandemic’s effects on our students, parents and educators,” Pritzker said. 

In Monroe County’s school districts, the process for planning for that money is fairly similar. 

Each superintendent said the planning process involves some combination of input from principals, teachers, board of education members and parents. 

“We will be soliciting feedback from our staff and parents at the end of this school year so that planning can begin for next school year over the summer,” Frankford summarized. 

“We want to treat this revenue source with respect and make sure we spend that money wisely and make sure we benefit our students,” Charron added. 

In Waterloo, which should get $901,557 in the latest wave of funding, Charron said there were a few possible items on which it may spend that funding. 

“We are currently working on plans for targeted summer school for kids,” he explained. “That will be a significant expense for the district, so we’re devoting a lot of funds for summer schools. We’re also looking at remaining technology needs.”

Even after that spending, Charron said he expects the district will have “a lot of money” leftover, which is where feedback from administrators and school board members may come into play.

Charron also noted school districts have until 2025 to spend the ESSER funds. 

“It is a significant amount of money, but it is a one-time revenue source,” he pointed out. “I’m always careful when we have a one-time influx of funds that we don’t invest in things that cause ongoing expenses.”

Columbia should receive $495,358 in the new round of payments, bringing its total to $774,749. 

Grode said that is “not a small amount,” and the district is planning to use the money for items like targeted summer school “beefing up interventions” for students struggling in the pandemic learning environment and addressing any learning “remediation” from the pandemic. 

“This is supposed to be targeted toward learning loss and whatnot. We’re doing benchmarking and looking at the assessment of students,” Grode said. “We have a certain amount of money set aside for each building next year so they can address any gaps or needs for their grade levels.”

Valmeyer is slated to get a total of $174,493 from ESSER funds, meaning its third allotment would be $110,604.  

“Initial feedback has been to use those funds for additional social and emotional supports for students, assistive instructional technology and curriculum development,” Frankford said. 

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