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Lawmakers target $274M in federal COVID relief for schools to students struggling with remote learning

Legislative leaders once again use budget hammer to mandate school priorities.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) This Sept. 18, 2020, file photo shows Meadowlark Elementary School teacher John Arthur, Utah's teacher of the year, interacting with his 6th grade students on Zoom, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers are concerned about students falling behind because of pandemic-forced remote learning and are mandating that $274 million in federal COVID aid be used exclusively to help these struggling students.

Utah lawmakers are so determined that federal coronavirus relief funding for Utah’s schools goes toward helping students who have fallen behind due to remote learning that they’re mandating that local districts can’t spend those funds on anything else.

At issue is $274 million in funding from the most recent COVID relief bill passed by Congress. Legislative leaders say that cash should be used exclusively to help lagging students catch up to the rest of their grades.

Republican legislative leaders are concerned about the number of students who have been struggling academically because of the pandemic. They’re particularly focused on the apparent high number of preschool and kindergarten students who have been kept home this year due to the pandemic.

Kindergarten is not mandatory in the state, so it’s hard to gauge how widespread that may be. Utah school officials say roughly 1,500 fewer students enrolled this year compared to last.

Legislators are determined to get their way on this issue, and they’re using a big financial hammer to accomplish that. They’ve included language in the public education base budget mandating local education entities spend federal coronavirus relief funds on addressing learning loss by students due to COVID-19. If that cash goes to another purpose, then the State Board of Education will reduce their allocation under the Minimum School Program by an equal amount.

That language was inserted into the bill on the Senate floor on Wednesday without any debate.

There are a number of ways that money can be spent to help kids catch up. The education base budget spells out several, including expanding preschool, kindergarten or after-school programs. There’s also the option of extending the school year or adding weekend classes and tutoring. Districts may also spend the money on individualized learning plans for students who are at risk of failing.

Gov. Spencer Cox proposed $9 million for expanding optional kindergarten in his budget proposal, but that does not appear to be part of this federal funding.

The federal money cannot be used for capital improvements to schools, such as retrofitting ventilation systems to better protect students and teachers from the spread of a virus, which is one of the approved uses from Congress.

“We could have a discussion about capital improvements in redoing air handling equipment at this point in time, but we want these funds to be laser-focused on student learning to help remediate some of the challenges that have been brought on by COVID,” Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said Friday.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, also strongly supports limiting how that money is spent, saying, “Right now our focus should be paying teachers and getting kids caught up.”

This is not the first time this year that lawmakers have decided to use the state’s purse strings to compel local education leaders to implement their preferred policy.

In December, legislative leaders pumped more than $100 million into the base budget to give teachers and staff one-time bonuses this year. However, they threatened to withhold those bonuses from teachers in the Salt Lake City School District unless they returned to in-person classes. They continued to put the screws to the Salt Lake district with a proposal allowing state funding to follow students to another school if they sought out an in-person option for their education, even if they chose a private school.

Salt Lake district officials relented and plan to return to in-person teaching for all students in February.

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