HOW IS IT SPENT: Miss-Lou schools allocate millions from CARES Act on academic, safety needs

Published 6:00 am Saturday, October 2, 2021

NATCHEZ — In March 2020, Congress passed the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which established the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, or ESSER funds, that are being dispersed by the millions of dollars among school systems.

The Natchez Adams School District is slated to receive $31 million in COVID relief money from ESSER by 2024 with $2.4 million received in ESSER I, $9.7 million in ESSER II and nearly $22 million in ESSER III.

Ernest “Tony” Fields, public engagement coordinator for NASD, said the district has expended $1.6 million from ESSER I and a little more than $1 million from ESSER II.

Concordia Parish is looking at a total of $16 million to be received from ESSER by 2024, said School Superintendent Toyua Watson. According to Louisiana Department of Education data, the parish has received $7.86 million and has spent $3.5 million.

Most of the funds that have already been expended were used last summer in the parish’s Summer Bridge program, a $2 million initiative which Watson said was the first of its kind in the seven years she has worked in the Concordia Parish school system.

“Last summer we ran a summer program with over 1,700 students,” she said. “To my understanding, this was the first time we’ve ever done a summer program of that magnitude.”

Watson said the program touched on both academics and also “reengagement and social and emotional learning.”

Participants were instructed in mathematics and English Language Arts and were rewarded with fun life skills lessons, such as fishing, putting on makeup, cutting hair, music and art.

“You name it, we did it,” Watson said. “They gave us the right of way to start spending before the actual funds hit, which was how we were able to start last summer.”

The parish also refreshed its curriculums with digital-based learning and a brand-new science program for third through eighth grade students, she said. ESSER allowed schools in both Adams County and Concordia Parish to provide every student with a computer and hotspot devices to those without high-speed internet.

“We were going straight to paper-based curriculums. However, the world is changing. While there were bad things that happened with COVID, I guess there was some beauty that came out of it. It made us think about how we were doing things,” Watson said. “While there were drawbacks with virtual learning, it taught us that there is value to having a virtual component in day-to-day, face-to-face learning.”

Additionally, the parish refreshed its Teacher Incentive Fund to have sign on bonuses for new certified teachers and reward those whose students show improved test scores and to help retain the teachers who are already working in Concordia Parish.

Watson said 80 percent of ESSER III has be earmarked for school building needs such as updating HVAC systems.

“Most of our schools are very old. That’s 80 percent of ESSER III that is going towards that while ESSER II is all academically focused. … We’re excited to have the funds for those much-needed updates in our schools,” she said.

Watson said the parish is also hosting Town Hall meetings to get feedback from teachers, parents and administrators regarding how remaining funds could be used.

“We’re not spending because we have it. We’re trying to make informed decisions because we don’t want the money to drive the process. We want data to drive the process, so we’re taking time to gather quantitative and qualitative data. The qualitative data we get by hosting the town hall meetings and listening to our teachers, our parents and our administrators and anywhere there is information. The quantitative data, of course, is test scores.”

On Wednesday, NASD posted a survey on social media requesting stakeholder feedback regarding ESSER spending.

“As of yesterday, we’ve had over 100 responses and we’ve been getting some good feedback,” Fields said. “The majority of those who responded agree with the way were allocating funds and are appreciative of the way we’re using it to enhance instruction. They are also appreciative that we have used it to purchase PPE (personal protective equipment) and other safety measures.”

To date, Fields said Natchez Adams School District has purchased air purification systems for all K-8 classrooms, desk guards and clips to ensure safe distancing among students in classrooms and cafeterias and disposable face masks.

“Cordless Electrostatic backpack sprayers have been purchased to deep clean classrooms and offices. Additional PPE for students and staff has been stocked. Water has been purchased for students since water fountains have been disabled. The district is currently seeking to employ an additional school nurse to provide health services to our students and assist with COVID testing,” Fields said. “These measures are being used to try and reduce the spread of COVID throughout.”

On the academic side, Fields said funds have been used to provide professional development for teachers and administrators and purchase new curriculum and instructional resources for core content areas.

“In addition, the district has hired two technology coaches to support teachers with providing digital instruction and supporting virtual learners. These purchases are targeted at accelerating learning for our students, who the global pandemic has impacted. Additional technology has also been purchased for special needs learners.”

Fields said the district also has plans for an after-school tutoring program to address learning loss and provide social services for students. Social workers have been deployed to schools to address students’ emotional needs on top of their academic needs.