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School districts prepare to face major gaps

Illinois is set to receive $569.5 million in emergency school funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

According to the CARES Act, at least 90% of this money will be distributed to the state’s school districts based on the number of low-income students in each district determined through Title 1 funding metrics.

School districts can use these funds in a number of areas related to COVID-19 response, but one major cost foreseen by districts has been remediation strategies needed to make up for the gaps in learning that will inevitably result from COVID-19 disruptions, district leaders said.

“That is our No. 1 concern in all of this,” said Dr. Steven Wrobleski, Superintendent of La Salle-Peru Township High School District 120. “We’re basically looking at a whole quarter of the school year that is going to be completely turned upside down.”

Since state and federal authorities do not yet know when the COVID-19 stay-at-home order will be lifted, Wrobleski said district leaders cannot say whether they will be able to host in-person summer school programs to help kids catch up before the fall.

For now, there is little planning they can do beyond keeping close track of students who have been struggling, he said.

Kathy Countryman, superintendent of Sycamore School District 427 (slated to receive about $280,000), agreed, saying it is too soon to tell exactly how Illinois schools will close the gaps in curriculum caused by COVID-19.

“We’re also looking at those pieces that directly touch kids such as … intervention services or some kind of programming this summer,” Countryman said. “The details, though, around what that looks like haven’t been solidified.”

Regardless of what form learning remediation might take, Huntley School District 158 Superintendent Scott Rowe said extra staff hours and changes in curriculum likely will be needed, meaning the process could be a costly one.

For Marengo-Union Elementary School District 165, Superintendent Lea Damisch said schools will utilize the district’s “Jump Start” program, a two-week curriculum recap right before the fall quarter begins, to catch up.

“We recognize that this fall we’ll be doing a lot of regrouping, reteaching. We’re going to backtrack on some material,” Damisch said.

“We’ll probably do a baseline assessment to see where [students] are at, and then we’ll differentiate our instruction that first quarter to close those academic gaps.”

District 165 will receive around $119,000, some of which will be used to cover the costs of WiFi hot spots and other technology bought to support e-learning in her more rural district, Damisch said.

“I spent $12,000 in hot spots so that my students that don’t have access to internet in their homes will be able to learn remotely,” she said. “… so that’ll pay for that.”

For other districts, such as District 120 or District 158, each student already had access to their own Chromebook laptop, making the transition into remote learning smoother and less costly.

District 158 is considering using a portion of emergency school funds to strengthen its cybersecurity after seeing other local districts such as Crystal Lake School District 155 and McHenry School District 15 impacted by cyber attacks, Rowe said.

Wrobleski said he hopes to save some of the roughly $230,000 in federal funding allocated to the district to ensure he can continue paying all of his staff as school districts continue to feel the effects of widespread economic hardship resulting from COVID-19 closures.

On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. JB Pritzker announced the state is projected to be $2.7 billion short for fiscal 2020 and $4.6 billion for fiscal 2021.

“My initial thought is that I would probably earmark that money for any salary shortfalls that we may be experiencing if we do see a decline in any kind of state revenue,” Wrobleski said.

In Grundy County, Coal City School District 1 plans to use some of its $150,000 in federal funds to offer social work and group counseling services for students over the summer so that they can recover from school closures emotionally as well as academically, Superintendent Kent Bugg said.

“What we’re hearing from parents is that kids are struggling. They miss their friends,” Bugg said. “One of the things I hope is that, as a part of our remediation process, we can offer a social emotional health component for students that may need it in order to be ready for the next school year.”

McHenry County’s Harvard School District 50 will receive $474,102 because of its status as a tier one school in the state’s evidence-based funding program. According to district officials, over half of District 50 students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a program that they have continued amidst the pandemic.

DeKalb Unit School District 428 is slated to receive more than $1.6 million in federal funding through the coronavirus stimulus bill, according to a Chalkbeat article.

In DuPage County, Downers Grove High School District 99 will get $312,000, and in Kane County, Geneva School District 304 will be given just under $350,000. St. Charles School District 303 will receive about $527,000.

“We will continue to serve as a conduit for community resources,” District 303 Superintendent Dr. Jason Pearson said in a video posted to the district website. “And we will make it through the coming challenges together.”

Kane County’s School District U-46 is among the top 10 Illinois districts with the highest estimated allocations, slated to receive $7.7 million.

Also in the top 10 is East Aurora School District 131 (just more than $6 million) and Waukegan CUSD 60 in Lake County ($4.9 million), according to Chalkbeat.

The city of Chicago School District 299 tops the list by a long shot and is slated to receive $205.7 million of the $569.5 million in federal funding allocated to the state.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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