3 goals leaders set for ESSER funds to keep schools open in 3rd COVID year

'Many families of color have reasonable mistrust' in public schools, interim president of The Education Trust says
By: | September 30, 2021

Legislators and stakeholders discussed how to use policies implemented during the pandemic to reopen schools and ensure classrooms remain open and address students’ needs during a House Education and Labor Committee’s Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee hearing on Sept. 29, “Back to School: Highlighting Best Practices for Safely Reopening Schools.”

It is important “to learn from experts about the obstacles schools face to reopening safely, how schools can keep students in the classroom safely, and how states and districts can leverage federal funds to build a more equitable education system for the future,” said Subcommittee Chairman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, D-Northern Marianas Islands.

Panelists discussed the use of ARP ESSER funds to reopen schools and how they will continue to be used to address unfinished learning and keep schools open, as well as needed next steps to improve outcomes for students. They also discussed the use of masks and other mitigation measures to keep schools open.

ARP ESSER Funds “enabled the Clark County Public Schools to prioritize needs, address obstacles, reopen safely, and support students’ social and emotional learning and academic needs,” said Clark County (Nev.) Superintendent Jesus F. Jara. He said the district is using 80% of its ARP ESSER allocation to address the impact of lost instructional time—far beyond the 20% required by law— and said he hoped that passage of the Build Back Better Act would provide funding to address the district’s infrastructure needs.

The district has engaged in community involvement and outreach efforts in establishing priorities for schools and will “continue engaging with the community to align our final priorities and build the necessary data-driven metrics to ensure transparent, ongoing communication and accountability,” Jara said.

Those community outreach and engagement efforts are crucial to successfully reach students and families who have been most significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Denise Forte, the interim CEO of The Education Trust.

“Many families of color have reasonable mistrust” in public schools, she said, and relationship-building will be necessary. Many minority parents experienced school with their children and saw what classrooms looked like, including microaggressions and excessive discipline policies, during the pandemic, she said.

It will be important for schools to make sure students have strong relationships within the school building with the principal, teachers, and other school leaders. Schools should also “embrace children” from an “asset perspective” that recognizes that all students come to school with their own strengths and “we should empower them to see those,” Forte said.

While the topic of the hearing was best practices for reopening schools, much of the conversation centered around students wearing masks in schools. Whereas some witnesses are advising on “following the science,” others are deeming mask-wearing “not very effective in schools.”

GOP members of the committee also decried the use of ARP ESSER funds to date. The ranking member of the committee, Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, said ARP “did not deliver on its promise to help schools safely reopen in the fall. If it had, we would not be sitting in this hearing today.

“Untargeted funding was never the answer to safe school reopenings, and Democrats sabotaged those efforts even further by voting not to require in-person learning as a condition of COVID-19 relief funding,” Owens said.

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for LRP Publications.