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Education

With School Plan Approved, Utah To Receive Final Portion Of Nearly $1 Billion In Total Federal Education Relief

A photo of a first grade glassworks with dividers at each of the students desks.
Courtesy of Randy Miller
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Almost $1 billion in federal COVID relief for Utah schools will go towards assessing and remediating the impacts of the pandemic.

Utah is one of the first states in the country to have its plan approved for how it will spend its share of the American Rescue Plan’s $122 billion for K-12 schools.

It’s the third and largest chunk Utah schools will receive in federal COVID relief, bringing the total amount close to $1 billion that they can spend over the next three years.

Much of the money so far has gone to providing computers and internet access to students as well as expanding summer and after school programs to get students up to speed.

Some rural districts, including the Piute District — the third smallest in the state — are using a portion of the funds on building upgrades to ventilate classrooms better so they’re less susceptible to spreading diseases.

Superintendent Koby Willis said the funding will also help the district hire more paraprofessionals — teachers’ aides and other support staff — and an instructional coach to mentor teachers.

“That's typically something that a tiny district would just laugh about having,” Willis said. “So this kind of provides some opportunity to get a little bit of that, if only for a short amount of time.”

He said the funding is a huge boost to his district’s budget — the last round alone amounts to a 10% increase — but its potential is somewhat hampered by time limits and the emphasis on catch up, rather than allowing for long-term investments in staff that could result in more permanent improvements to education. Plus, there’s only so much catch up you can do without exhausting people.

“If you're saying we're doing after school programs or doing summer programs plus the regular programs, [parents] already feel like they don't see their kids,” he said. “And there's only so much time that you can keep a first grader at the school before they just are burned out.”

According to the state’s overall plan, schools’ biggest priorities for the latest funding round will be addressing student mental health and social emotional needs, identifying and engaging missing or disengaged students in K-12 and improving reading skills, particularly for kindergartners through third grade.

“Success will be measured by knowing the impact of COVID-19 on each student and being able to use these funds to meet their needs,” said State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson in a press conference with the U.S. Department of Education Tuesday.

State-level data on the impacts won’t be available until November, said Darin Nielsen with the Utah State Board of Education’s assessment department, though there are some preliminary indicators.

Overall course completion for high school seniors fell to 31% in December 2020 compared to 54% the year before, the states’ plan notes. Reading outcomes for K-3 students also dropped noticeably, particularly for students from low-income families and English language learners.

Nielsen said one positive sign, however, was that more students participated in state testing than expected. About 94% of students in grades 3-8 took the RISE test, he said, which measures skills in English, math and science.

“Overall, we’re very optimistic that we've gotten a large enough sample size of our student population that we'll be able to make some meaning out of the data,” he said. “We'll be able to use the data to draw some conclusions about the effects of the pandemic.”

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