SALT LAKE CITY — With the new school year just over a month away, school districts throughout Utah are getting ready to help students recover from the pandemic's educational impacts.
District leaders are now "up to their eyeballs" working through plans for an unprecedented school year, said Ogden School District spokesman Jer Bates.
"It's a unique situation we're in, where we've got additional needs for our students that have to be addressed and we've got millions of dollars in unplanned or unexpected federal funding that we now need to allocate to the best of our, the best use that we possibly can," he explained.
Most of the students who opted for online learning during the 2020-21 school year are now returning to the classroom, Bates noted, for which the district needs to plan. "But also sort of retroactively try to make up for the disruption they faced for the two past academic years," he said.
The impacts of COVID-19 on students' education in Utah and throughout the U.S. aren't yet fully understood, but the federal government is pumping billions into the education system for recovery. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education stated that in core subjects like math and reading, "there are worrisome signs that in some grades students might be falling even further behind pre-pandemic expectations."
Utah last week received a $205 million installment of federal pandemic funding to help address the most critical needs created by the pandemic, bringing the state's total allotment to $615 million that will soon make its way to schools.
Sarah Young, director of strategic initiatives with the Utah Board of Education, said district plans for use of the funds are due Aug. 20. The State School Board hopes districts will use the money to support students' mental and emotional needs; focus on re-engaging students who have been missing or disengaged from school; and, focus on literacy in K-12 as student success in that area has "trended downward" in early state data, according to Young. Data on students' progress in other subjects won't be available until later this year, she said.
Funds will likely also be used for enhancing learning options.
"I think there'll be more opportunities for personalization and options for students and families. I think that's one of the big things we've seen come out of the pandemic. Whether that's offering options for online course work, for course work to be completed in the summer, or after-school learning, there's just a lot more opportunities that are available to our students and families," Young said.
Here are some Utah school districts' proposed plans for addressing COVID-19 impacts:
- Granite School District will provide additional after-school programming and new, comprehensive self-paced content recovery resources to help make up for learning loss, according to Ben Horsley, district spokesman. Virtual learning will remain available, but the district expects between just 2-5% of students will choose it. Horsley said Granite School District is still getting feedback from the community about what would be most helpful for students and families.
"I think we're looking at everything and seeing what works best in terms of providing the most options for our students in order for them to be successful," he said.
- Ogden School District is considering a variety of options for pandemic recovery, including hiring additional temporary staff members; expanding targeted reading intervention at both elementary and secondary levels; increasing the district's pre-kindergarten program; providing resources directly to the district's at-risk, underserved population; and upgrading and enhancing technology throughout the schools, Bates said.
"The potential is great, we only hope that our families, our parents and students, will recognize the tremendous opportunity that's being made available through some of these additional expenditures and the programs that it can facilitate," he said.
"We need families, we need parents and students to also be willing participants, because it's one thing to offer a program, it's another thing to actually have the students be there and be participating," Bates added.
- Washington County School District plans to use the federal pandemic funding to offer additional professional development to teachers, especially in online teaching strategies, said Steve Dunham, district spokesman. Because the district was one of the first to reopen to in-person learning last year, he said it has seen fewer impacts from the pandemic.
"The spring, as we got test results back, not only did we catch back up, but we made a lot of ground. The kids are above their counterparts throughout the rest of the state, so we feel really, really good about the way things are looking right now," Dunham said.
- Canyons School District has been working throughout the summer on credit recovery programs to prepare students to receive enough credits to graduate, said Kristen Stewart, district spokeswoman.
This story may be updated.