The earlier rounds of money were easier to spend since they were focused on quick purchases of computers, masks, cleaning supplies and other tools needed to cope with the pandemic.
As with the prior funding, schools will be at liberty to spend the new money on just about anything education-related. Together, these three rounds of funding equal more than half what the state sends to schools annually. But that $10 billion in state funding pays for core, ongoing costs, mainly salaries. Schools will be wary of using these federal dollars for such ongoing expenses.
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They are more likely to focus on temporary expenditures, such as training, overtime pay, further technology upgrades or contracted services.
School leaders generally agree that the biggest, and as yet unquantified, need is to help students who fell behind this school year and last. The traditional yardstick to measure learning — mandatory standardized tests in every state — was waived last year. The tests are back this year but students can skip them and many who are attending online probably will.
“You’ll see programs probably for summer school, mentoring and tutoring — those types of things that will try to help recover the learning loss,” said Charles Burbridge, the CFO for the DeKalb County School District, which is just now reopening classrooms. “I’ve seen some estimates of three-to-four-months of learning loss during the pandemic.”
Students stand socially distant in the cafeteria as they purchase their school lunches at Cartersville Middle School in Cartersville, Thursday, August 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
In the coming months, the school district will outline a plan for the money, he said. Meanwhile, DeKalb is still filling in the details with the last round of funding. For instance, money from the December round will likely be used in next year’s budget to restore the four days cut from the school calendar due to the pandemic-inspired state budget cuts, he said.
Among the big-ticket items he imagines is a retooling of teaching for a technological age: “Children just spent a year learning on Chromebooks. Are you really going to bring them back into the classroom and give them a textbook again?”
Many districts, including Fulton County, will be spending some of the money on summer school.
Fulton will pay teachers their normal rate to staff it, plus an incentive bonus, which spokesman Brian Noyes pegged at a total cost of $1.8 million. The rest of the summer program price tag has yet to be finalized.
Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a non-partisan education think tank at Georgetown University, said he thinks schools should also spend on tracking down parents of chronically absent students, whose numbers appear to have multiplied.
“There are a lot of kids who just sort of drifted away,” he said.
Daniel Sobczak, a high school teacher in DeKalb who saw his students in person for the first time last week, said his top priority would be to acquire trailers to spread students out for safety and to add bus routes so they aren’t packed together so much during the rides. He’d also like to see money spent on ventilation systems to clean classroom air.
“Most of our buildings, the windows won’t open,” he said. The next thing would be more reliable internet access for students. Some students will also need counseling, he said, especially older students who were stuck at home looking after siblings while their parents were at work. They were forced into duties beyond their years, he said, and they’ll need someone to talk to.
“The isolation of the last year has really been hard on a lot of students,” said Sobczak, vice president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.
Celeste Martin, left, and Monserrath Guerrero look to their teacher from behind plastic partitions during their language arts class at Marietta Middle School on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 5, 2020. Even though there are only five students in the room during class, they all wear masks and sit behind plastic partitions. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Credit: Ben Gray
Credit: Ben Gray
Unlike prior rounds of funding, this latest bundle totaling $1.9 trillion lacked bipartisan support, with Republicans bashing it as “reckless, ” and complaining that Democrats rammed through a bill that “lacks commonsense provisions to help our schools safely open immediately ... .”
Most schools in Georgia have been open for months, if not the entire school year. However, students in many districts opted to remain online.
Megan King, a high school teacher in Houston County who has been teaching online students, said her teens bear a sense of “grief” from the experience. Like Sobczak’s students, many of hers have been home alone while their parents were out working. She would also like to see money for counseling.
King, the president-elect of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said she appreciated an idea her assistant principal had for the money: teacher training. Many baby boomers are retiring and new recruits tend to lack the additional certifications necessary to teach a gifted or Advanced Placement class, King said.
“These funds are going to open those doors to us,” she said.
Georgia’s federal relief funding for schools
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes $122.8 billion for schools, with $4.25 billion earmarked for Georgia.
- 20% must be used to address learning loss through summer school, extended days, afterschool programs, extended school year programs, etc.
- Other school spending can be from more than a dozen categories, including training, mental health services, tracking attendance, indoor air quality and public health protocols
- A final subsection allows spending on “other activities” needed to provide schooling
Source: H.R.1319 - American Rescue Plan Act of 2021