How Utah will spend $205 million to help students catch up after COVID-19

The state is focusing its efforts under a federal grant on kids from communities of color and low-income households.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) McKenzie Jackson teaches fifth grade at Lincoln Elementary School in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. The state will now receive $205 million to help with learning loss from the pandemic.

To get students back on track after the pandemic, Utah will use federal funds to boost its summer school and after-class offerings — with a particular focus on helping kids from underserved communities.

The state is set to receive more than $205 million for the effort as part of the remainder of a grant paid out by the U.S. Department of Education.

“The pandemic’s impacts were sprawling,” said Utah Superintendent Sydnee Dickson. “But with this money, we can start to re-accelerate student learning for those impacted the most.”

The funding to address the academic slide from COVID-19 was announced Wednesday, with Utah among the first cohort of six states and Washington, D.C., to have their plans approved by the federal government. The latest subsidy is supposed to be directed to inequities in education exposed by the pandemic, with each state outlining how they will respond.

In Utah — as happened elsewhere across the nation — students who saw the largest dips in grades and attendance were more likely to be individuals of color or to come from low-income households, according to state data.

In Salt Lake City School District during the pandemic, for instance, there were more F grades reported in Title I schools, which fall in areas where the concentration of poverty is the highest, than anywhere else. And in Granite School District, most of those who failed this year were English language learners and large populations of refugee or new immigrant families.

The same gaps played out in every district across the state, Dickson said, across genders, across grade levels and across subjects.

The disparities for accessing education for those groups, she noted, were exacerbated when classes moved online. Many of those households include essential workers, parents who work more than one job, older siblings who take care of younger siblings and families who got sick from the virus. Education, for some, was understandably put on the back burner, Dickson said.

Utah plans to use the extra federal funding to cover the costs first for bolstering summer school programs already underway now, as well as “into the next couple of summers,” Dickson added. She acknowledged it will likely take a few years to make up for all of the learning losses.

The effort will include encouraging more students to sign up and offering intense curriculum for catching up. The superintendent said there wasn’t enough funding from the first round of allocations, provided under the American Rescue Plan, to cover that and other initiatives needed to get students up to speed. Utah first received $410 million with the plan in March.

The money will also be focused on after-school tutoring, especially for students in kindergarten, first and second grade who need help learning to read. The state found an initial 14% drop in the number of first graders who had the expected level of early literacy skills this fall, after schools first shut down in the spring.

School districts and charters here will submit requests to the state for a share of the funds in what is being called “a competitive grant process,” with each pitching unique plans to address the problem in their area.

Dickson said she wants to see schools prioritizing the students who need help the most — that could include academically or with mental health support.

The state will also use a share of the funding for a study on how kids were impacted, conducting research and collecting new data on grades, attendance and test scores.

“At the end of the day,” Dickson said, “success will be measured by knowing the impact of COVID-19 on every student.”

Dickson was chosen as the sole state superintendent to speak during a news conference, a nod to the how the Department of Education has received Utah’s proposal.

Other states are planning to use the money to hire more mental health staff or tutors. The other plans approved Wednesday were from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas, South Dakota, Arkansas and Washington, D.C. Texas received the largest share, with $4 billion, and Washington, D.C., the smallest with $128 million. The amount distributed is based on how many students a state has and how many are counted under Title I.

In a call with reporters, Maureen Tracey-Mooney, a special assistant on education to President Joe Biden, said she considers the funding “a down payment on the future of this nation.”

“We know that we’re not going to fix the problems caused by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic overnight,” she said. “We know that we have work to do to make sure that our schools emerge from this better than before.”

The Department of Education will continuing approving plans from the states who have submitted requests, allocating a total of about $130 billion, including the funding in March.