The influx of federal money that has helped buoy Fairfax County Public Schools and other school systems around the U.S. as they emerged from the first year of the Covid pandemic is starting to run out.
Facing a September 2024 deadline, FCPS officials presented a plan to the school board last Thursday (April 27) for spending approximately $57.5 million remaining from the $188.8 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) awarded by the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021.
The biggest item in the plan is $22.2 million to extend contracts for special education teachers that compensate them for an additional 30 minutes of work per day, which FCPS says “is imperative” to attracting and retaining those faculty members.
“Our special education students were some of the students most impacted during the pandemic, and as a result, our special education teacher workload has significantly increased as they work very hard to meet the needs of those students,” FCPS Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio told the school board.
FCPS has 27,839 students with disabilities, who make up 15.5% of its enrollment, state data says. Based on data from before the pandemic, a report released last fall found significant disparities in test scores and discipline between those students and their peers not in special education.
In December, a U.S. Department of Education investigation determined that FCPS had failed to provide adequate support to special education students when it shifted to virtual learning early in the pandemic.
The proposed ESSER plan includes nearly $200,000 for compensatory services that FCPS is required to provide under its agreement with the DOE. The funds cover staffing as well as legal fees needed to reimburse for parents “for external educational costs incurred by them due to the pandemic-related school closures.”
When at-large school board member Abrar Omeish asked whether it was appropriate to use the funds on “trying to clean something up,” Presidio said the DOE confirmed it’s “an allowable expense” to address learning losses — one of four categories covered by ESSER.
While the spending plan mostly focuses on existing expenses, like a school health officer and the return of an expanded summer learning program, FCPS has proposed two new “projects”: $1.2 million to upgrade its website, and $250,000 to contract outside agencies that will work with chronically absent students.
About 15% of FCPS students missed 10% of school days or more during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).
“Essentially, we’re identifying individuals that can connect with the student and connect with the family, understand the root causes of why that student is not able to attend school,” Presidio said. “It might be a health issue, it might be a transportation issue, it might be a work issue and a scheduling issue, and really help try to resolve those for the student and family as best as possible.”
He said counselors, teachers, social services and other school workers will stay involved, but the chronic absenteeism provider will have more capacity for the “labor-intensive” task of working with individual families.
“We need somebody who’s able to actually do those home visits and really coordinate and kind of case manage the services for the student and to be able to spend time with the family and student to understand what those root causes are,” he said.
Some school board members expressed concern about the amount of ESSER funds going to staff positions, from social workers to academic tutors, given that the money will run out after the 2023-2024 school year.
Presidio noted that some positions previously covered by ESSER have been phased out, like social distancing monitors, while other expenses, like additional English as a Second Language workers, have been incorporated into FCPS’ regular budget.
However, he acknowledged that in many cases, decisions will need to be made about “can we afford to retain any of these positions or do we lose them all.”
The proposed ESSER budget for fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1, is scheduled to be approved by the school board on May 11. FCPS then hopes to get the VDOE’s approval by May 31.
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