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School board mulls plan for spending $87 million more in federal COVID-19 relief funds

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Prince William County schools are expecting to receive another $87.9 million in federal funding tied to coronavirus relief by next fall. Now, the school board and school division staff must decide how to spend it.

The amount of federal COVID-19 relief money flowing into local schools this year is unprecedented. The school division has already received about $93 million in federal dollars since the pandemic began. The additional $87.9 million will bring the total to more than $181 million – more than four times the annual funding local schools typically receive from the federal government.

The school division used earlier allocations to buy more than 50,000 computers for students and staff, fund hazard pay for staff and cover numerous other pandemic-related expenses. 

By law, the school division must draft a plan for spending the additional $87.9 million and release it to the public by Aug. 1. The plan must then be submitted to the Virginia Department of Education by Sept. 1.

Also by law, the school board must collect input from the public on how to spend the money. Meetings were held on June 15 and June 22 to allow residents to give their suggestions, and more than 9,200 responses were collected via an online survey, according to results recently posted to the school division’s website.

During the June 16 school board meeting, Superintendent Steven Walts said the state had already granted “preliminary approval” to the school division to spend $11 million of the new money on textbooks for students from pre-K through high school and another $4.75 million on new buses, although he did not say how many new buses the money would buy.

Walts also said administrators hoped to spend $2.5 million to pay a company to restore and refurbish tens of thousands of computers students used while learning remotely last school year. Another $1.1 million is planned to be spent on “Lexia,” a computerized reading program that tailors lessons to individual students. The school division will also dedicate about $2 million to paying teachers for extended school year programs to deliver extra instruction to targeted students, Walts said.

The school division must dedicate 20% of the money, or about $17.5 million, to addressing learning loss during the pandemic. That leaves about $49 million for the school board to decide how to spend, something they will likely figure out after the new superintendent, LaTanya McDade, arrives July 1, Walts said.

“We don’t know what’s in front of us, and I want to make sure Dr. McDade, and you as a school board, have substantial funds when I am gone,” Walts said.

Extra teachers' aides, specialists, counselors

During the June 22 public hearing, the school board heard suggestions from about a dozen speakers. Ideas for the extra money included spending $500,000 to hire a consultant to study the most effective ways to help students prevent and cope with mental illness, a suggestion from the school board’s student representative Charlotte Flynn, a student at Woodbridge Senior High School. Other speakers said schools should hire more reading specialists, tutors, guidance counselors and mentors.

Kate Olson-Flynn, a parent who leads the school division’s advisory council on equity, said the school division should focus the spending on doubling school instructional aides – a move that could effectively reduce class sizes to provide more targeted help to students.

“With this investment … our students would be able to have more individualized attention in the content and skills that they would most need after the pandemic,” Olson-Flynn said. “Prioritizing this human capital invests our money in what we know our students need right now – time, care and attention from people who can meet all their social, emotional and academic needs, something no computer can provide.”

Parent Stephanie Parisi said the school division should hire more speech pathologists and occupational therapists for special education students, who she said have lost the most ground during the pandemic.

“We have many special education students in Prince William County, and a lot of them have fallen through the cracks,” Parisi said. “I would like to see the funds go to the students who really need it, whether they have disabilities or not.”

Former school board member Willie Deutsch said the school board should do a thorough assessment of the educational impacts of the pandemic, which should be made public, before it decides how to spend the money.

In an interview before the June 22 meeting, School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef said the school division likely would not spend the money on updating heating and air conditioning units, as such equipment was already made as efficient and effective as possible before the start of last school year. The money can be spent on such upgrades as well as sanitization efforts and equipment.

Instead, Lateef said he believes schools will need more reading specialists and instructional aides. 

The money could be used to hire more staff, but only on temporary, one- to two-year contracts, according to John Wallingford, the school division’s associate superintendent for finance and risk management. 

In an interview after the June 22 meeting, School Board Vice Chair Lisa Zargarpur (Coles) said the school board would rely on school division staff and school administrators to recommend the best uses for the money.

“Any of our students who have a loss in learning or are a little bit behind, we have the tests and assessments to know that information and move forward,” Zargarpur said. “… I believe our educational professionals are going to be able to get this together for us.”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

 

 

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