Families who have been struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their children’s schooling since March 2020 are getting major help, thanks to the allocation of $122 million in federal money to the Washoe County School District.
That money, from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program (ESSER), including $77 million under the American Rescue Plan, is earmarked for assisting students and their families who have had their lives disrupted by “distance learning” and other changes made necessary by the contagion.
“It’s very hard to do work at home,” reported one fifth grader who attends Roy Gomm Elementary School in Reno. “I don’t always have help, and I miss out on a lot of things my teacher does because I can’t do Zoom meetings.”
Parents also strained under the weight of the new normal.
“The pressure that’s being put on us as parents and them as students is definitely taking a toll,” a parent of an elementary school student wrote to district officials. “I am very concerned for the mental health of our students as they are suffering greatly without the social interaction of their peers and teachers and daily physical activity.”
With the federal allocations, help has arrived.
Changes came quickly
When Washoe County students left school for the two-week spring break in March 2020, they had no idea they would not be allowed to return to their classrooms until June, and then only long enough to grab a few belongings from their lockers and leave.
There was no time to say goodbye to their friends or teachers, no way to safely hold a traditional graduation ceremony complete with caps and gowns, no chance to sit down to lunch or linger in the building without risking exposure to a potentially deadly and highly contagious disease.
The district, the students and their families had to instantly adjust as the pandemic continued its relentless march across the nation and the world. During the first three months of the lockdown, the district printed more than a million pages of lesson plans for all grade levels and distributed tens of thousands of emergency meals and learning packets at school sites in every corner of the district. Intervention specialists contacted families in need, delivering dozens of food boxes and learning materials to families who were ill or lacked transportation. Hotlines were set up to provide tech support for students and their families.
But many students struggled with distance learning and the emotional fallout of having their lives disrupted overnight.
Back into classrooms
In August 2020, five months after the start of the pandemic, Washoe County became one of the largest urban districts in the country to open its doors for in-person learning. More than 62,000 students and 8,000 staff members returned to classrooms, although some opted to continue engaging in distance learning through North Star Online School. Educators and staff members continue to work closely with families and students to keep them on track with their studies, monitoring their progress and successes, and providing additional supports and resources.
Now, the district is getting substantial federal funding to support that assistance.
Under the federal guidelines, the $122 million from the emergency relief allocation must be used to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on elementary and secondary schools. The ESSER program is the single largest targeted investment in K-12 public education in U.S. history; the money must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.
“We are aware that we need to do more to ensure our students continue to improve academically and recover from the emotional impact of the pandemic,” said Adriana Publico, project manager. The funds will “support students’ social-emotional needs and assist with academic recovery and success over the next three years.”
The allocation also will pay for additional teachers, counselors, social workers, and graduation support staff working in high schools to support students, she said.
The priorities were set in response to a community-wide survey sent out by the district in May that drew more than 9,300 responses. With those as a guide, officials identified the students and services most in need as recovery from the pandemic continues.
Seventy-five percent of respondents preferred in-person learning. They wanted the district to come up with ways to allow students to learn in smaller groups, create individualized approaches for students, and to add courses that teach life skills and practical knowledge. Among the high priorities was increased instructional staff with a stronger focus on struggling students — particularly for students with special needs. Respondents to the survey also asked for an emphasis on student engagement and well-being.
The district’s recovery plan calls for additional positions and programs, including student support services, intervention programs, psychological services, student health services and other departments and programs. The Family School Partnerships Department received support for five positions to aid students who are at high risk of dropping out of school. The funding also supports the hiring of a general family graduation advocate, a Native American graduation advocate, and three family graduation specialists for high schools who work directly with students to support individual needs and accelerate learning.
In addition, site-specific plans have been developed to support student learning, while intercessions and summer school are provided for all interested students.
“(The federal) funding will help WCSD support a variety of programs that are tailored to the needs of each school community including tutoring, summer school, graduation advocates, attendance personnel, school psychologists, counselors, equity and diversity personnel, and social workers,” Publico said.
“The district is assessing needs at each school and using this crucial funding to direct resources where they’re needed.”— Adriana Publico, ESSER project manager at the Washoe County School District.
The funding will support all the district’s students, particularly groups most affected by the circumstances created by the pandemic. Those include students who are members of historically-underrepresented populations and pupils who are English learners. Students who are living with disabilities, poverty, are unsheltered or living in foster care also are priorities.
In addition, the funding is supporting tutoring programs at 76 Washoe County schools. Tutoring is provided before and after school and/or during the school day, depending on each school’s schedule. Educators say tutoring is one of the best ways to address each student’s unique needs and provide strategic, targeted interventions.
Between May 2020 and February 2021, the district circulated six surveys and held three student-led town hall meetings to gather comments on a variety of topics including distance learning, reopening plans, and funding plans. Administrative staff presented results to the district’s board of trustees at public meetings.
Feedback from families has been generally positive at the midway point of the 2021-22 school year.
“We started off distance learning and due to our child’s mental health, found it better to send him in person,” one parent of a fourth grader who is attending in-person classes wrote. “He has been far more engaged in learning since going back in person and the hygiene processes are easy to accommodate and well worth it.”
For more information about how the Washoe County School District is using ESSER funding, visit www.washoeschools.net/esser. The District has also created a Response to Recovery plan that is guiding its direction in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. That plan is aimed at addressing the academic, social, emotional, and mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
About the author: Vickie Campbell, a long-time Nevada journalist, is the public information officer at the Washoe County School District.