Utah got $1 billion in pandemic relief to support K-12 kids. Here’s where the money’s going.

Utah is tracking outcomes for some statewide programs that aim to help students catch up.

(University of Utah Reading Clinic) A University of Utah Reading Clinic tutor works with students in an undated photograph. To help the clinic expand its reach as children's literacy dropped during the pandemic, the state awarded it $1.3 million in federal education aid.

For nearly 25 years, the University of Utah Reading Clinic has taken pride in its ability to boost its reach through winning grants and drawing philanthropic donations.

“We have a long history of cobbling together funds in order to reach our maximum capacity,” said Kathleen Brown, director emeritus of the clinic, which helps low-income K-12 students learn to read and teaches educators how to intervene when students are struggling.

Then the coronavirus hit. With shifts to online learning, interruptions as schools later dealt with outbreaks and other challenges, children’s reading skills in Utah and across the country plunged. “The learning loss is a tragedy,” Brown said. “It’s a national tragedy. And its impact will be felt for generations.”

To help with the surge in need in Utah, Brown snagged a $1.3 million slice of the more than $1 billion Utah has been awarded in several rounds of federal coronavirus funding for K-12 education. The final deadline to spend the last round is September 2024.

While some states have been slow to spend, a March analysis by the think tank FutureEd at Georgetown University put Utah just below the 50.5% national average. Utah had spent 49.4% of the main funding stream, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER funds.

The U.’s reading clinic benefited from the other chief source of federal K-12 education dollars, Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER. And Brown can offer data to show it effectively used the money.

One example: The clinic expanded its direct tutoring to help 256 more children from all over the state. Those students averaged 1.32 years of growth in oral reading ability and showed an 18-point percentile rank improvement on a test that measures silent reading, Brown said.

Federal reporting requirements differ depending on the use of funds. But generally, districts, charter schools and other education agencies that have received COVID-19 aid won’t have to file data on outcomes for programs they oversee.

But for programs overseen at the state level, Utah is taking a closer look, said Sarah Young, chief of staff for the Utah State Board of Education (USBE).

Besides the federal requirements to report how and when the funds are spent, she said, the state board is working with legislators and Gov. Spencer Cox’s office “to look at: ‘So, here are all the federal questions. What are the existing questions we have at the state level to really help inform our policymakers about the use of these funds?’

“We incorporate those additional questions related to the state interest into a single reporting form that every single one of our [state level] awardees completes once a year, to be able to respond to questions about the overall outcomes and efforts of each contract.”

That information is available to the public via an online dashboard at schools.utah.gov/coronavirus, where users can research the outcomes of state-driven projects and see how individual school districts have spent their funds.

“We set up these funds to be tracked dollar for dollar,” Young said. “...That is not the case across the nation.”

Spending the early aid

In 2020 and 2021, Congress passed three rounds of ESSER funding for public and private schools, totaling $190 billion. Under federal requirements, ESSER dollars were distributed based on districts’ most recent Title I allocations — which meant schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families were prioritized.

Granite School District is Utah’s top ESSER awardee, receiving $152.4 million, far more than the next district, Alpine, which was allocated $87.3 million. They were followed by Davis, Salt Lake City and Washington County school districts in the state’s top five.

Congress also set aside $7 billion for two rounds of GEER, the education relief provided to governors, along with wide discretion to decide how to distribute it.

When Utah received its first ESSER funds — $67.8 million — organizations scrambled to purchase Chromebooks, personal protective equipment, social distancing signs and sanitization products, anything to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Sara Harward, grants compliance officer for the Utah State Board of Education.

Utah sent its first GEER funds — $29 million — to 147 districts or schools considered the most significantly impacted by COVID-19, to help special education and at-risk students dealing with the consequences of remote learning.

The deadline to spend the first rounds of ESSER and GEER funds was September 2022, and according to state data, 99% was spent.

A shift in spending

As the immediate emergency subsided, Utah’s spending priorities shifted to retaining teachers, upgrading facilities and combating learning loss.

Utah’s second round of ESSER funds totaled $274 million. Most districts and schools chose to spend their awards on educational technology, offering summer learning and after-school support, and programs to address accelerated learning, according to data compiled by the state board of education.

“When the pandemic didn’t go away, the needs evolved,” Harward said. “We started to see students were falling behind, their grades were dropping, that kind of thing. With ESSER II, it evolved to credit recovery programs and summer and after-school programs, really trying to target that learning loss.”

Most of the second round of GEER — which totaled $13 million — was awarded to 157 districts and schools. But $1.3 million was set aside for the University of Utah Reading Clinic.

(University of Utah Reading Clinic) University of Utah Reading Clinic tutor Brittny Myers, left, works with a group of students at Mount Ogden Junior High in 2022. Federal pandemic aid for education enabled the reading clinic to open new programs in Ogden schools.

The deadline to spend this second round of ESSER and GEER money is Sept. 30. As of last week, the state reported 81% of ESSER II and 58% of GEER II dollars had been spent.

The third and last round of ESSER funding is the biggest, with nearly $616 million sent to Utah. Districts and schools must allocate 20% of their awards to mitigating lost instructional time.

So far, Utah school districts are spending more than required — an average of 34% of their funds — on this requirement, Young said.

“Many of those solutions are going to look like hiring tutors and additional paraeducators,” Young said. “We also have [districts] that have been using the funds to be able to provide after-school learning opportunities as well as summer school learning opportunities. Those are efforts that we feel very strongly about.”

This money must be spent by September 2024.

A statewide impact

States were allowed to reserve 10% of each round of ESSER funding for special projects related to learning loss and COVID-19 recovery. Utah’s state reserve totals more than $95 million, and members of the state board of education voted on how to spend it. Big ticket items included:

• $3.5 million for K-12 personal protective equipment and thermometers.

• $10.5 million in educational software and technology.

• $11.9 million to launch statewide literacy initiatives.

• $20.8 million distributed to school districts and organizations for after-school and summer enrichment programs

The board also launched several other projects, including the $1.8 million Utah Principal Supervisor Academy. A cohort of 200 principals were taught how to support principals and to respond to the impacts of COVID-19, through evidence-based leadership practices.

Each project was designed to be completed by the end of its federal funding period, Young said. However, the state is working to ramp up funding for projects that demonstrated “they would be beneficial to the larger state at scale,” she said.

An example, she said, was the board’s one-time $11.9 million investment to train K-3 educators in the science of reading. Sen. Ann Millner, (R-Ogden) heard about its effectiveness, Young said. “So, she ran a bill to be able to provide funding to be able to expand that program.”

The bill, called the Early Literacy Outcomes Improvement, was signed into law in March 2022, with an initial investment of $19 million.

Though the drop in the academic performance of Utah students has recovered slightly, it is not yet on par with pre-pandemic levels, Young said.

‘A synergistic effect’

With the GEER money the U. reading clinic was awarded, it hired five intervention specialists and 15 part-time tutors to scale up its virtual services. It also opened two new school-based reading clinics in Ogden schools.

The clinic had previously provided an average of 900 educators per year with year-long literacy intervention training, which requires participants to undergo 40 to 50 hours of hands-on clinical training, Brown said.

Since 2021, the year of the GEER award, 431 additional educators have enrolled in the program, bringing the total number of teacher participants to over 1,300.

“During COVID and after, [the funding has] enabled us to broaden our outreach in really everything we do,” said clinic director Kelly Patrick. “It’s enabled us to have a better outreach to our more rural communities of Utah.”

The clinic also was able to increase the number of children it directly served, from 435 in 2020 to roughly 691 in 2021. But Brown said the clinic’s greatest impact comes through its work with teachers.

“When an organization like the UURC is able to work with up to a dozen or more educators in one school, you really get a synergistic effect of impact on kids,” she said.

The “estimated impact” of teachers trained by the clinic increased from helping 7,500 children in 2020 to 17,500, with the added funding over the past two years, Brown said.

“That’s how you get maximum impact, as opposed to working with one child,” Brown said. “That’s the beauty of professional development.”

While Brown said she’s grateful for the additional money the clinic received, the problem will persist long after the COVID-19 funds expire.

“Kids (are) coming into the clinic and they’re in third grade but they’re reading on an early first-grade level,” Brown said. “And it’s not just a couple of kids. It’s thousands of kids. And those are the kids who were most hurt by COVID because their instruction was so disrupted.”

Decades of data collected by the clinic show on average, children who receive at least 45 intervention sessions lasting 45 minutes improve their reading ability by at least one grade level. That’s about a year’s worth of sessions.

“The key thing is expertise,” Brown said. “They have to get what I would call ‘miles on the page.’ They have to consume a ton of text. Now, the devil’s in the details because, say a child is in sixth grade. You can’t just throw sixth-grade material at them.”

Literacy intervention is both an art and a science, Brown said. On one hand, the pacing can’t be too fast but on the other, there’s no time to waste when a child can’t read on grade level. “If you’re in sixth grade reading at a second-grade level, there’s no time to fool around,” Brown said.

The reading clinic is only one “lean mean reading machine,” she said, and can only reach so many children. “If we had the institutional will across society,” she said, “we could do more than we’re doing now to ameliorate some of the loss.”