Education

The Jefferson County Board of Education heard an outline Tuesday on the district’s plans for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds. Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said staff are trying to create a “sustainable” plan for the $578 million, which must be spent within the next three years.

“Sustainability is a key to all the things we are talking about,” Pollio said. “We want to support kids and we want to make sure that we provide additional learning time and staffing, but we also want to make sure it’s sustainable … so that’s a big challenge for us.”

Like most districts across the country, JCPS is receiving an unprecedented infusion of federal dollars. The district is getting three rounds of pandemic relief funding through three different Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER): $35 million from the first package passed in March 2020 (ESSER I), $178 million from the second package passed in early 2021 (ESSER II), and a forthcoming $400 million from the third package (ESSER III), signed into law in March 2021.

Federal rules require districts to spend the money before September 2024. That means districts are grappling with how to use the money in a way that won’t require staffing and program cuts when the funds run out. Typically, around 80% of education expenditures go toward personnel.

Staff say JCPS spent the initial $35 million on the district’s immediate needs, including Chromebooks and internet hotspots for students to participate in remote instruction, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) for the return to the classroom. 

Pollio said staff are still figuring out how to spend the remaining $578 million from the second and third packages. Federal rules require districts to spend 20% of the last relief package on addressing “learning loss.” Pollio said a “significant amount of dollars” will go toward adding learning time, like summer instruction and extended school days.

Reporting from WFPL shows low-income students, Black students and English Language Learners saw disproportionate low marks during remote learning. That suggests marginalized students faced more barriers to pandemic learning.

“I’m not one that’s going to use the term ‘learning loss,’ but we did have learning time that we’ve got to make up for,” Pollio said.

Pollio said one way to add instructional time is to build “student service centers.” They’d be staffed with JCPS teachers to help students after school and into the evening.

The district also plans to upgrade some of JCPS’s dozens of school buildings in need of repair.

Creating a districtwide baseline for technology and increasing the availability of things  like Chromebooks and SmartBoards in the classroom will be a priority, Pollio said.

Pollio said the district is trying to find an “equitable” way to distribute the federal funding, with more funding going to the highest need schools. Each school will get a base amount of $150 per student, he said, with higher amounts for students with disabilities, students of color, English Language Learners and low-income students.

Pollio said the board will vote in July on a plan for spending the remaining money. But before that, federal rules require the district to get community feedback and input on how to use the funds.

“That’s a quick turnaround and community feedback on spending that much money. Right?” District 3 board member James Craig asked Pollio.

JCPS chief communications officer Renee Murphy said the district is in a process of “developing a system to gain that feedback.”

 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.