Kansas public schools calculating how to spend $830 million in federal pandemic aid

Local, state school boards have three years to make use of funding

By: - June 15, 2021 4:01 pm
The federal government allocated $836 million in the latest round of COVID-19 aid to Kansas public education for use to help student rebound from the pandemic. Here, the Shawnee Heights school board near Topeka voted in December for a hybrid of in-person and online instruction. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The federal government allocated $830 million in the latest round of COVID-19 aid to Kansas public education for use to help student rebound from the pandemic through 2024. Here, the Shawnee Heights school board near Topeka voted in December for a hybrid of in-person and online instruction. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Department of Education plans to use a slice of $830 million in new federal funding for public education to address COVID-19 learning deficits by training K-3 teachers to help students absorb more from their reading.

Half of the 10% set aside for the state agency must be dedicated to rebounding students from the pandemic, while 1% has to be allocated for summer session and 1% for after-school programs. These dollars are to be invested in 286 public school districts across Kansas to counter the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on certain student populations and take into account the overall social, emotional and academic needs of nearly 500,000 children.

The bulk of this latest shipment of federal emergency aid — 90% of the $830 million — will be disbursed by individual school boards for benefit of students attending classes in the 1,300 school buildings statewide. Flexibility was included in federal law to allow districts and states to shift emphasis if education priorities had to be adjusted.

This allotment pushed to approximately $1.4 billion what the state received from the federal government from outset of the pandemic emergency in March 2020 through the relief-aid deadline in September 2024.

Gov. Laura Kelly, left facing, who attended a recent COVID-19 vaccination clinic for students at Topeka High School, said through a spokeswoman that Kansas students would benefit from full state funding of K-12 education through 2023 and $830 million in federal aid to public schools through 2024. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Brad Neuenswander, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Education, said the bottom line was Kansas public education couldn’t be allowed to return to a pre-pandemic footing. Shortcomings exacerbated by COVID-19 can be addressed during the next three years with that kind of federal investment, he said.

“This is an amazing opportunity to not go back to the way it was,” Neuenswander said. “We had gaps in the system before this happened.”

Look no further, he said, than home environments insufficiently conducive to educating students. Issues highlighted by the pandemic included the insufficient availability of before- and after-school options, as well as spotty high-speed internet and computer technology.

The federal package labeled the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, was authorized by Congress and President Joe Biden in March. It’s part of the American Rescue Plan and promised nearly $122 billion to states in support of safe operation of schools. Most states were eligible for more than Kansas in this round of COVID-19 assistance. For example, Oklahoma scored $1.4 billion in this installment.

Of the 90% or roughly $750 million to be spent directly by local education boards, one-fifth must go toward learning deficits linked to the coronavirus. The remainder could be for purchasing educational technology for students, providing mental health services and implementing summer programs. Other options include professional development on infectious diseases or purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean buildings.

Federal guidance allowed a portion for repair of school facilities to support student health as well as upgrading heating and cooling systems, windows and doors to improve air quality. Part of the money can be allocated to maintain staffing levels and retain existing school activities.

Neuenswander said it would be crucial Kansas not invest in personnel and other areas in ways that committed resources beyond 2024. He said the distinction could be as simple as a school district partnering with a county health department or a YWCA on a mental health initiative rather than inventing an independent program that couldn’t be sustained past Sept. 30, 2024.

“They’ve got to be careful they don’t create a cliff,” he said. “It’s one-time money.”

None of that money has started flowing to local school districts in Kansas. In preparation of that moment, the state Board of Education has began work on reviewing and adopting expenditure proposals from individual school districts. A task force of superintendents, legislators and teachers sharing the goal of helping students regain instructional momentum has met weekly to contemplate strategies to get that done.

Kansas school districts making use of federal ESSER funds will drawn monthly from their designated allotments from the U.S. Department of Education rather than sit on a massive nest egg. At the same time, federal law prohibited states from making disproportional reductions in state funding for high-need and high-poverty students.

Two-thirds of the ESSER award was formally allocated in March. States must submit a written expenditure plan to the federal Department of Education to gain access to the remainder.

Randy Watson, commissioner at the Kansas Department of Education, says the state's goal should be to help high school students earn around 15 credit hours of college credit before graduating. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Randy Watson, commissioner at the Kansas Department of Education, submitted a report to the federal government outlining a shortage of more than 1,000 special education teachers and social workers in Kansas public schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Reeves Oyster, a spokeswoman for Gov. Laura Kelly, said the commitment by the Democratic governor and Republican-led Legislature to fully finance K-12 public education through 2023 and availability of supplemental federal assistance through 2024 would poise students to recover from the pandemic.

“The additional $830 million in federal relief dollars will secure the resources the Department of Education, state Board of Education and local districts need to create innovative opportunities for Kansas children and strengthen our schools and workforce as we emerge from COVID-19,” she said.

Kansas officials reported the pandemic took a toll on educators as well as students. During the 2019-2020 school year, the pandemic disrupted programs to improve retention of special education, science and math educators and to strengthen support for newly licensed teachers. Educator vacancies in Kansas public schools during the 2020-2021 school year grew faster than the state’s capacity to add teachers.

There is a supply and demand imbalance for licensed school counselors, social workers and psychologists in Kansas. The condition has been worst in underserved rural areas and deepened as educators left the profession due to the pandemic.

If Kansas followed recommended staffing levels, state education officials said in a federal report, districts in Kansas would need to hire 1,390 social workers, 1,075 special education teachers, 795 school counselors and 480 school psychologists. The shortage of science, technology, engineering and math teachers in Kansas’ K-12 schools stands at 240, while the shortage of elementary and early-childhood education teachers hovered at 360.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.