Think of it as a GoFundMe page for Connecticut’s public schools.
That, in a way, describes the unique opportunity teachers had to brainstorm a list of resources students need most and set the direction for an influx of federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) fund.
The Connecticut State Department of Education, together with the State Education Resource Center, recently held public forums to get input from teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders about how to invest ESSER dollars. Forums drew participation from CEA staff, leaders, and members, who offered specific recommendations for how those funds should be invested.
“Federal legislation explicitly requires state agencies to consult with educators and their unions about how ESSER funding should be spent,” says CEA Executive Director Donald Williams, who took part in the forums and in developing a detailed written plan for how relief funds should be invested. “This is a recognition that teachers’ input is key to ensuring a strong recovery from the effect the pandemic has had on students, staff, and school communities.”
CEA is also advocating for union members to have a seat at the table at the local level as districts put together applications for funding and grants.
SDE Acting Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, one of the forum facilitators, observed, “This funding can help transform education and help transform students’ lives.”
The forums looked at several key questions, including
- What are the state’s current education needs, and how can this influx of funds support students and meet their needs?
- How can SDE support safely keeping schools open and sustaining their safe operations?
- How can ESSER support the educator workforce?
In written documents submitted last week to the State Department of Education and in comments shared at the forums, CEA emphasized that ESSER funds should be channeled into several categories where there are demonstrated needs. These include
Social emotional supports. “We are in a dire mental health crisis, and English learners, children with special needs, and indeed all students at every grade in every ZIP code are going to face challenges,” said CEA Teacher Development Specialist Kate Field, who participated in the forums. “The levels of trauma, depression, and anxiety have skyrocketed, and we must improve the student-to-counselor ratio, rebuild relationships, and address underlying trauma by bringing in additional school social workers, counselors, and other certified mental health support staff. We need to make sure districts have additional money to address this, because students will be in no position to learn if they’re struggling with mental health issues.”
Former classroom teacher Jo Ann Freiberg, who co-chairs the National School Climate Council, added, “There has been so much trauma and inequity, but we are starting to hear less about that and more about learning loss. All paths converge, however, and one key non-negotiable is that we have to create environments that support students and prioritize community and relationship-building.”
One forum participant summed it up this way: “Social emotional learning needs to start occupying a more prominent place in our schools.”
“While social emotional learning was supposed to be a priority, it did not seem that was always the case in all districts,” a school counselor observed. “If kids’ social emotional needs are not met, then learning will not take place. There has to be more direction for what this looks like in school buildings. It really has to include the hiring of more professional support staff: school counselors, social workers and psychologists. If we’re looking at an equity lens, then this is a must. There are many children who, because of high caseloads, do not have access to these mental health professionals in our buildings.”
“Our students need mental health supports,” Field noted. “One counselor divided by multiple schools is unacceptable but too common.”
Indoor air quality. “With the recent influx of ESSER funds into our state, we can make our schools cleaner, safer, and available year-round, including for summer enrichment opportunities, with the installation, maintenance, or repair of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and the remediation and prevention of mold,” said CEA Director of Policy, Research, and Government Affairs Ray Rossomando. “Even before the pandemic, sick schools were a problem that had grown so pervasive that many teachers were forced out on leave, and students were sent home sick from extreme heat and humidity in their classrooms. Concerns about air quality have only intensified with the airborne spread of viruses such as COVID-19.”
Many forum participants echoed Rossomando’s points. “Let’s make our school buildings healthy and safe with updated HVAC,” one participant noted. “This is our chance.”
Ending double teaching. “Requiring educators to teach students in remote and in-person settings simultaneously—a practice known as double teaching—has shortchanged students on both sides of the screen,” said CEA Executive Director Donald Williams. “There is no substitute for in-person learning, and any provisions for online instruction beyond what is permitted under current law should be strictly limited. If the state considers developing a virtual school model, it should be a publicly-run, state-level school developed with input from educators, school leaders, and state entities familiar with providing virtual learning, such as Charter Oak State College. SDE should reject any proposals to pilot a virtual school with a private funder. A statewide approach to virtual learning—with public oversight and transparency—are critical to ensuring equity and cost effectiveness.”
Greenwich teacher Jennifer Maxon Kennelly, a Fairfield Board of Education member, noted that if remote learning is to continue on some scale, the state needs a virtual learning academy with fully remote students and a single type of teaching model.
“We can’t financially sustain individual models in our districts,” she said. “If the state rolled out a dedicated remote learning academy using best practices from various districts, it would be transformative and a tangible way to support districts with medically fragile students without reinventing the wheel. A dedicated academy would be incredibly valuable to teachers, staff, and students.”
Recruitment and retention of teachers of color. Teacher turnover exacerbated by the pandemic is costly and results in student disengagement. Many forum participants noted that programs that raise cultural awareness, mentor new teachers, and develop a homegrown pipeline of educators—particularly teachers of color—and create a more welcoming climate and working conditions for all educators should be strongly encouraged, and ESSER funding could help.
Lessons from the pandemic
“One thing I hear over and over again from vulnerable students—for example, those who receive special education or those who are justice involved—is that they feel more engaged in smaller groups, where they can have real discussions, reflect, and learn from each other.” This is how one forum participant described the benefits of smaller group settings that were achieved in some cases because of social distancing or other measures.
Of course, smaller class sizes require higher staffing levels and more support.
“We need more paraeducators,” said one participant, “because when schools are understaffed in these ways, then teachers are overburdened, and students are underserved.”
Shellye Davis, president of the Hartford Federation of Paraprofessionals, noted, “This past year has created so many challenges for our entire school community. Paraeducators have stepped up and stepped forward to meet those challenges head-on. This year has highlighted the crucial role paraeducators play in supporting students, understanding those who have special needs, and alerting teachers to certain issues. There are so many things we had to learn on our own this year, and I am hoping that districts plan the usage of the ARP ESSER funding that will include a portion of the funds be earmarked for high-quality skill-building and professional learning opportunities for paraeducators. Investing in paraeducators will pay dividends.”
Freiberg and others added that increased time allowed for professional development and collaboration among teachers would have significant advantages as well.
The Connecticut State Department of Education must submit its ESSER plan to the U.S. Department of Education by June 7, 2021.