Thanks to a $1.8 billion windfall in the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief funds to help schools recover from the past two years of interrupted learning, we have a historic opportunity to transform the public education in Massachusetts.
The federal government handed out the latest round of funding earlier this year, but Lowell has only spent $4 million, just 10% of the $40 million available for its schools. If the funds are not used by 2024, they expire. Unless plans are put in place – today – for this money to support students, we will continue to deny them the education they deserve after two of the most difficult years of their lives.
It’s not an opportunity to be wasted, especially when decades of data prove that Massachusetts shouldn’t rest on its laurels at the top of national lists for educational achievement. The pandemic’s most valuable lesson may be the need for greater urgency to address the stark and disparate outcomes for students of color, low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities in our great state.
Some public school students are fortunate to receive everything they need in their classrooms every day: essential support, academic rigor, access to extracurriculars and enrichment. Far too many other students and families, especially in some urban zip codes, have to fight for a fair and equitable education. They often attend rundown schools that lack a comprehensive education – one where they would be as challenged and supported as their suburban peers.
With federal relief funds earmarked for each school district, now is the time for this transformative change. Using these federal funds along with new state assistance through the Student Opportunity Act, Massachusetts leaders have an opportunity to change the landscape for all students, with a focus on those who find themselves too often at the bottom of each data table.
There are legitimate reasons why districts may not have tapped into these funds yet. Massachusetts has already received more than $1 billion for schools in the first two rounds of COVID-19 relief funding, so districts can still spend that amount. And even those looking to spend that money quickly have faced obstacles, including supply chain issues, delays in school building security upgrades and technology purchases, and staffing shortages. , limiting the hiring of staff, from substitute teachers and bus drivers to tutors and school counsellors.
Yet, amid a revival focused on racial and economic justice, these funds must be used urgently to address the long-standing inequalities that plagued our schools before March 2020. Let’s roll out high-dose tutoring where it is most needed. Let’s address the ongoing mental health crisis among students of all ages by ensuring schools have social workers and psychologists, and building strong partnerships with local mental health agencies and hospitals. Let’s reimagine summer school programming that focuses on both academics and enrichment, while dramatically increasing the number of students invited to attend. And let us ensure that our teachers and school leaders, who have faced enormous challenges over the past two years, have the support they need to educate our children to the best of their abilities.
Developing these critical investments and implementing them according to research-based best practices takes time, but district officials have a responsibility to clearly communicate their plans – not just hide a PowerPoint on their websites – and demonstrate their impact. on student success and well-being.
Without this transparency, and based on how districts are using past COVID-19 relief money, it’s easy to assume that districts are using these funds to tinker at the margins or reinvest in the status quo, which will not suffice. With a three-year window to spend this funding, we shouldn’t strive to return to the old “normal” or set aside funds for future projects or emergencies. Instead, we should focus on building better, stronger schools, with supports in place to ensure every student succeeds, regardless of zip code or background. This should be the legacy we strive to achieve.
Mary Tamer is the state director of the Massachusetts Democrats for Educational Reform and is a former member of the Boston School Committee.