Funds support COVID recovery in schools

Inadequate school funding is an old and tragic story in Ohio. Those who defend this reality like to say money doesn’t matter, but the federal government has a different view. In 2021 Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and granted $130 billion in Elementary Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to states and school districts to help students “recover, succeed and thrive.”

Ohio received $4.475 billion to award to local school districts. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District received $17.1 million to spend by September 2024. That’s equivalent to about $1,200 a year per student, for three years. The funds are a one-time resource specifically dedicated to recovering from the negative impact of the pandemic on students and school operations. This infusion of federal funds provides needed relief from years of funding shortfalls that constrain plans and options for helping students.

It’s hard to comprehend what $130 billion looks like, but how those funds are spent is what matters. Federal guidelines allow expenditures in three areas: making it possible for schools to safely remain open for in-person learning, helping students grow academically, and supporting students’ mental health needs. These broad goals give districts lots of room to fashion strategies to promote recovery. While recovering from the pandemic is a long-term proposition, three years of funding gives school districts a fighting chance to right the ship.

Each school district develops its own plan. The CH-UH district website lists the components of its recovery plan: increase student learning, address needs of the whole child, ensure COVID-19 health and safety, and engage with families. These are in keeping with federal guidelines and the basics of healthy school districts.

I’m impressed that ARPA recognizes the importance of mental health, which education fundamentalists don’t consider to be in the purview of daily life in schools. But isolation, fear and loss—three core features of life during the pandemic—have taken a toll on all of us and cannot be ignored.

Federal funding has not produced a lot of shiny new solutions. Rather, more resources have made it possible to hire more people who can implement tried-and-true activities, including more time for learning and more personal attention.

One example is in-school tutoring. Our school district has employed a cadre of three to five professionals in each of our seven elementary schools—mostly retired and former classroom teachers—who each spends up to 20 hours a week working with kids who need to catch up. They target students who are not already receiving extra services, and, to minimize the loss of time with the classroom teacher, tutors are “pushed into” the classroom to work alongside classroom teachers. They also pull kids out for one-on-one or small-group work during times set aside for that. 

Robin Koslen, a retired special-education teacher, has put her well-honed skills to work at Noble Elementary School. One of the first tutors employed by the district, she started at Noble last spring. Koslen spends most of her time with third-graders—students who lost the formative years for reading. “I feel useful,” said Koslen, who sees progress and feels like she is supporting dedicated and caring teachers. “I’ve learned so much from these phenomenal teachers.”

When the Ohio legislature passed the last state budget, they relied on the federal funds to make up for the shortfall in funding for the Fair School Funding Plan. As school districts demonstrate what is possible with this improved level of funding, I hope lawmakers will see that money does matter. When the next budget is approved this June, they need to fill the funding gap that the end of ESSER funds will create.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 16, Issue 2, Posted 11:46 AM, 01.31.2023