Chicago school board ‘disheartened’ by district spending on school support and mental health

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Some Chicago school board members are urging the district to step up the pace of its federally funded efforts to deal with the academic and mental fallout of the pandemic, saying the money is not being spent fast enough to meet needs immediate students.

The district has so far spent just 12%, or $62.9 million, on a two-year, half-billion-dollar initiative called Moving Forward Together, which was designed to help students recovering from the COVID disruption. And he has used less than 7% of his $1.8 billion allocation under the Biden administration’s U.S. bailout, the third and final round of federal COVID relief funds.

District officials said they encountered a host of obstacles to spending the money faster: the delta and omicron variants diverted energy from academic recovery efforts, and the national “great resignation” made more difficult to build the staff needed to roll out new programs. to support students.

CEO Pedro Martinez also noted that the district needs to spend dollars from previous rounds of federal relief funding first, and not all expenses are included in the U.S. bailout numbers because the district did not have them. reported to the state.

Some school members said they understand the challenges, but would still like to see increased efforts to get help to schools now.

Board Chairman Miguel del Valle said the district needs to speed up its hiring processes for community organizations that provide social, emotional and mental health support to CPS.

“It’s an emergency,” del Valle said. “Schools are asking for extra help.”

Board member Luisiana Melendez acknowledged the continuing challenges, but said “timely interventions” for students were immediately needed to prevent more problems with learning and social and emotional development in the child.

“I’m a bit discouraged by the low amount of investments so far,” she said.

The Moving Forward Together plan announced last June is using $525 million — part of the $1.8 billion US bailout the district received — to address the academic and mental health trauma of the pandemic over a period two years. Chicago Public Schools got a total of about $2.8 billion through three rounds of federal COVID relief.

Program investments include:

  • accelerated learning and access to grade-level content ($35 million)
  • targeted intervention and tutoring ($15.3 million)
  • supporting students with disabilities and English language learners ($7.6 million)
  • early literacy ($1.9 million)
  • transition year support ($11.1 million)
  • social, emotional and healing support ($3 million)

Real-time spending data that Chalkbeat has obtained and analyzed suggests that the district has so far used a significant portion of its federal COVID relief dollars to cover salaries and benefits for existing teachers and support staff and other routine expenses for which he had previously budgeted state and other funds. The district told the state it would use about $764 million in federal emergency assistance to pay for existing teaching positions only. It plans to separately cover support staff such as cafeteria workers and security guards as well as pre-kindergarten staff with COVID dollars.

During a meeting at the start of the school year, council members urged district officials to outline how they would follow up if the initiative paid off for students. Some members have expressed concern about the possibility of making a substantial investment without having results to demonstrate.

At the time, officials said they were still exploring ways to capture program outcomes, noting some challenges such as quantifying improvements in student mental health. But they promised to report back with concrete measures of success.

As of Wednesday, district officials did not define a metric to measure the program’s success. On the contrary, board members echoed Melendez’s concerns about the pace of spending on such interventions.

The school year had been called a “recovery year,” but in reality the district focused on reopening and keeping schools open amid surges, staff retention and other issues, Martinez said.

“We all wanted it to be a recovery year, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Martinez said.

Across the country, school districts are grappling with learning gaps and mental health issues created by the pandemic that has upended the education system. The federal government has issued billions in COVID relief funds to help school districts respond.

Detailing the initiative last summer, Chicago Public School officials said about 84,500 students had been flagged for targeted support and another 18,130 students would be eligible for more intensive outreach. The district’s effort would focus primarily on southern and western communities hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, officials said at the time.

The initiative is largely focused on re-engaging students who went offline after the district transitioned from in-person to remote learning in March 2020. Chicago Public Schools used a portion of the funds to create school behavior and mental health teams, while also partnering with external mental health service providers.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Melendez and other board members asked the district how they plan to accelerate the use of those funds to ensure students receive needed interventions now and in years to come.

“It’s not meant to point fingers or blame anyone,” Melendez said, “but I think it’s an issue that’s becoming more and more urgent as time goes on and children suffer. long-term impacts on learning – and social emotional impacts – of COVID.

The presentation was only “a partial picture,” in part because of the complexity of how those funds are reported, Martinez said, promising a more in-depth analysis of the spending by May. Still, Martinez said the district is “doubled down” on providing the support managers are asking for, including social workers, counselors and nurses by next year.

Melendez, a board member, acknowledged the complexity of funding, but argued that “schools are hurting, they need support now.”

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago’s public schools. Contact Mila at [email protected]

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at [email protected]

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