School districts across Southwest Colorado are set to receive hefty chunks of federal dollars in the latest round of coronavirus relief aid, leaving administrators with big decisions about how to spend the money.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 signed into law by President Joe Biden last month included $122 billion for K-12 schools in an effort to address learning loss stemming from the pandemic and to ensure that schools could reopen safely.
More than $1.1 billion of that money is being distributed to school districts throughout Colorado.
Districts are required to use 20% of their allotments to alleviate learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions, such as summer learning or after-school programs.
The remaining 80% can be used in a multitude of ways to address the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Districts have three years to spend the money.
The biggest chunk of federal money coming to Durango School District 9-R will be an estimated $4.4 million from Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Samantha Gallagher, 9-R’s chief financial officer, said 9-R will have until Sept. 30, 2024, to spend the money from the American Rescue Plan, and 9-R is holding off on determining how to use much of the funding until the arrival of its new superintendent, Karen Cheser, in July.
In addition, she said money from Biden’s plan has not yet been released by the state to individual school districts.
“We have begun talking about it internally, but we do have some time, and the state has not yet released the funds, and we want to involve the new superintendent in the decision-making,” Gallagher said.
The district received $2.6 million from the original Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed in March 2020. Most of the funding went to purchase 2,400 Chromebooks for students; to pay costs of switching to at-home and online schooling; to buy personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies; and to beef up janitorial services.
“The biggest areas that we spent money on, were thousands of Chromebooks for students,” Gallagher said. “The accessibility issue was a big cost. We also provided hot spots to students and staff who didn’t have good access to broadband.”
In fact, 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp said aid from the CARES Act allowed the district to reach its goal of having one computer for every student from third grade to 12th grade.
“That one-to-one ratio of computers to students is something that we’ve always wanted to, but never had enough funding to accomplish,” Gallagher said.
COVID-19-related costs such as teacher training for remote learning, buying special equipment to more effectively sanitize and boosting up other supplies to deal with the virus were the other big areas of expenditures with CARES Act funding.
“We used about three times as much paper towels during the COVID year than in a normal year,” Gallagher said.
CARES Act money bought PPE, including KN95 face masks, face shields and gloves, and created isolation rooms for students suspected of carrying the virus.
Other COVID-19-related costs included increased health costs and money for contact tracing. The district also used money for additional summer school sessions and individual student interventions to help students recover from lost learning when classes went online.
Other federal funding for 9-R included $1.9 million in federal assistance coming from a package that passed in the waning days of the Trump administration, and that money is just now being released by the state.
In addition, the district received $437,000 from another federal COVID-19 relief package that was used to pay for increased summer school sessions in 2020.
Federal aid did play an important role in making up for a shortfall in state education funding during the COVID-19 year.
District 9-R’s per-pupil state funding in 2019-20, the year before the virus, was $8,464. In 2020-21, the pandemic year, the state’s per-pupil funding dropped to $8,174. Based on Gov. Jared Polis’ K-12 budget request in January, 9-R estimates per-pupil funding for 2021-22 will be $8,666.
Animas High School Head of School Sean Woytek said funding from Biden’s COVID-19 stimulus package has yet to be released, but based on estimates from the Colorado Charter School Institute, he estimates the school will receive between $100,000 and $150,000.
“That’s an early estimate. It’s definitely not a definitive number,” he said.
The school received $99,835 from the CARES Act and $125,000 from a Safe Schools Reopening Grant from the Colorado Department of Education.
Additionally, AHS has received $80,000 from a RISE grant and $200,000 to $300,000 from the League of Charter Schools. The RISE grant and the League of Charter Schools funding will be used to study student engagement in their studies, and will help AHS assess how moving to remote learning during the pandemic affected students’ academic performance.
AHS spent its CARES Act money on five outdoor tents, increased air-filtration units for its HVAC system, UV air sanitation units, increased janitorial supplies and PPE for staff members and students, and the school moved from having an in-house janitor to contracting for janitorial services that included twice-a-week deep cleanings.
The school also used the money to pay for increased health expenses, such as contact tracing and isolating students who might be infected with the novel coronavirus.
“Dealing with positive cases, doing the contact tracing, quarantines, working with parents – doing all of that has been a pretty significant expense this year,” Woytek said.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 can expect $9.7 million to be at its disposal in the near future.
One priority for the district will be tackling learning loss, especially for the district’s high population of low-income, at-risk students.
Finance Director Kyle Archibeque said some of the money also could be put to use on training and development opportunities for staff members, repairing facilities to provide better air quality or purchasing more buses to expedite transportation and give students more time in the classroom.
“It’s been on the back burner, but we’ve just never had this amount of money to make it happen,” Archibeque said, referring to the possibility of acquiring buses.
Montezuma-Cortez officials will likely wait until the annual student count in October to determine how many buses to purchase and whether to resume door-to-door pickup.
An investment in online learning may still be in the works even though Montezuma-Cortez schools have largely managed to stay open for in-person learning throughout the pandemic.
“We understand that some of our parents may still not put their kids back in-person next year, so we want to make sure we’re prepared on that front,” Archibeque said.
Archibeque said hazardous pay and retention stipends might be offered to teachers. Increases in salary will not be offered because they would not be financially sustainable after the federal money ran out.
Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent Lori Haukeness campaigned in 2019 for a mill levy to increase teacher salaries, but the ballot measure was rejected by voters.