Week of 8/15: Five Themes

With schools opening on schedule and in-person in these first two weeks of the school year, we wanted to highlight five themes that our research team is observing:

This is Dennis from Burbio and below is our weekly update.  Feel free to share. 
Burbio has now compiled 5,400 ESSER III plans with over $85 billion in allocated spending and we are adding to the database weekly.   Burbio's weekly blog posts covering school operations, finances, and enrollment since October 2020 can be found here.
By the end of this week just over half of K-12 public school students will be back in the classroom.   With schools opening on schedule and in-person in these first two weeks of the school year, we wanted to highlight five themes that our research team is observing: 
1. Staffing:  As noted in our August 1st blog post school districts have been dialing up incentive and retention payments to staff for the upcoming year.  It is important to note that staffing issues are not stopping schools from opening even as they continue to be discussed in district correspondence.  Below are three examples of district reports on staffing that reflect the challenges:
  •  In this August newsletter Flemington-Raritan School District, a small district in New Jersey, provides interesting insight into how the district hired over 100 staff members.  The district hired formerly outsourced teacher assistants as employees of the District, and also notes, "We hired . . .  health and physical education teachers, math and language arts teachers, science teachers, music, special education, pre-school, band, and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers.  . . .  elementary and middle school teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, school secretaries, Central Office, administrative assistants and cafeteria aides.  Despite all of these hires, we still have a few positions that remain  . . . . like world language, special education, and math and science teachers . . ."
  • Duval County Public Schools, FL reports in a letter to staff, "There are currently more than 400 teacher vacancies . .  ..  . This challenge isn’t new .  . . It became particularly acute last school year."   Plans to adapt include adjusting teacher-to-student class ratios, using certified teachers from non-teaching positions to support classes, having district staff serving as substitutes and increasing the substitute pool.  The Superintendent adds, "I recognize that many of these decisions impact many of you personally. Most teachers will see an average of one or two more students in class, and many other staff members will take on temporary teaching duties.  . .  .. The impact of these decisions  . . . is not lost on me, but I hope you can understand these decisions in the context of what this situation means for our students. .  ."
  • As noted in our July 18th discussion of budgets we noted percentage compensation increases for support staff were higher than teaching staff, and districts across the country are struggling with bus routes and food services.  In Anchorage, AK, for example, students will have bus access only three out of every nine weeks due to staffing shortages and sixteen schools in the district cannot serve hot meals due to a shortage of cafeteria workers. 
2.  Learning recovery.   Districts are required to set aside a minimum of 20% of ESSER III funds for learning recovery.   Burbio has compiled a database of 5,400 ESSER III plans covering over 75% of US K-12 public school students and over $85 billion in allocations.   Below are the categories noted in the "learning recovery" sections of ESSER III Plans and the percentage of districts who intend to spend in those areas:
Academic Intervention 8-14
3.  Diminishing Covid 19 mitigation.  The most recent CDC Guidance removed "test-to-stay" guidance, a tactic we saw used frequently in districts last year, and our August 8th blog gives examples of districts removing Covid 19 protocols for this coming year.   There do remain some tactics being used, even if only in a reduced number of districts: 
  • A very small portion of school districts are requiring masks for students and staff as the year begins. We update our Top 500 map the day a mask mandate takes effect. The School District of Philadelphia, PA, where masks have been required all summer, will require masks for the first ten days of school, noting, "This is an extra precaution for everyone’s health and well-being since increased end-of-summer social gatherings may heighten the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Masking may then become optional under specific circumstances." Prince George's County Public Schools, MD, where school starts August 29th, announced a mask mandate beginning August 15th.   In Pittsburgh Public Schools, where school starts August 29th, the district's Covid 19 guidance indicates that the district is in the mask-required "medium" community spread threshold.  
  • Requests to mask do continue to appear in Superintendent correspondence.  In Union Public Schools, OK, where school begins August 17th, the Superintendent writes, "Given the recent rise in Covid infections in the Tulsa area, we strongly recommend students and staff consider wearing a mask if they are in a highly populated public area, especially when it’s difficult to ensure adequate social distancing. Also, we highly recommend that parents consider vaccinating children against COVID, as it has proven to be effective in guarding against infection."
  • Where proactive testing is being requested, tests are being sent home.  In this note, Milpitas Unified School District reports "Home antigen testing will be the primary strategy for COVID mitigation at school." Delhi Unified School District, CA which recommended students get tested before returning to school, made tests available for home testing in the days before school started. 
4.  Mental health programs, extended outreach and social programmingLast week we highlighted examples of mental health programs, and in our April 11th blog we highlighted some of the many engagement programs being launched by districts to work with students and families.  While not as resource-intensive, we have also noted the frequency of free backpack and supplies giveaways such as this one from Pemberton Township Schools, NJ,  where they are also giving away free produce boxes. At Palmyra School District, NJ, this promotion offers free back-to-school haircuts. as does this one at Fairfield City School District, OH
5.  Overall increase in school spending and resources.  In our July 25th blog post we noted increasing revenues for districts due to ESSER III funding, and we will continue to note the impacts we see in our ongoing data collection of school budgets over the course of the Fall.  In addition to the academic recovery, mental health, and engagement categories noted above, large areas of investment include HVAC, technology, transportation, and expansion of academic and career programs. 

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