Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools had its plan to spend federal COVID relief funds approved by the Kansas State Board of Education on July 14. (Photo illustration/Canva)

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Addressing student learning loss caused by COVID-19-related closures is a top priority for Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools as the district plans to spend federal relief dollars.

On July 14, the Kansas State Board of Education approved the district’s plan to spend more than $29.3 million of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

Under the KCKPS plan, 71% of the funding will be spent on instruction-related expenses, 12% will be spent on infrastructure and health-related expenses, and 3% will be spent on social-emotional needs, according to the narrative portion of an application submitted to the board. 

“Our students have been out of the classroom longer than, I would say, most other students in the state of Kansas, and so we knew that automatically would cause concern for learning loss,” said Kristen Scott, an instructional improvement officer for the district, who designed a spending proposal with Tracy Kaiser, executive director of business operations.

The application says the district is using summer school, updated course materials, teacher training and tutoring offered before, during and after school to help students catch up after a year of pandemic-related disruptions. 

Other spending, such as on transportation, technology and food preparation, is meant to support goals like remedying learning loss, improving mental health and preparing for potential long-term closures. For example, transportation spending helps get students to summer school and tutoring in an effort to combat learning loss. 

The impact of remote learning

KCKPS remained in remote learning during much of the 2020-21 school year because of high COVID-19 rates in Wyandotte County. Most students did not return until March 31, though some with high educational needs were brought back in January, according to the application.

“The education impact of being in remote learning for over a year with our high needs diverse population will be shown when the Kansas Assessment data becomes available,” it says.

Scott told The Kansas City Beacon the district has seen preliminary results of state testing but that official scores were still pending as of July 20.

The narrative part of the application says COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on the district because of its makeup.

For example, Scott said English language learners particularly benefit from both direct interaction with instructors and opportunities to hear and practice the language with peers.

“When you’re learning a second language or a third language, that one-on-one, face-to-face instruction is vital,” she said. “Trying to do that with a lot of our students who are brand new to the United States, that can be difficult.”

There are more than 4,000 students in the district with disabilities and more than 9,000 English language learners, the application says. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches make up 77% of the district. 

The district has about 21,000 students, according to a spreadsheet from the state board summarizing school funding plans. 

How COVID relief funds are being spent

The spreadsheet shows some of the funding is devoted to transportation to and from summer school and tutoring. Other expenses include textbooks and software, staff to provide tutoring and reading instruction, and training for teachers about how to address learning loss. 

The funding application also details funds devoted to COVID-19 safety, including an air-filtration system, translation software to communicate with families who speak different languages and bus cameras meant to assist with contact tracing, and cleaning and personal protective equipment. 

The district is planning to have in-person learning during the upcoming school year. To address social-emotional needs, the district plans to hire a coordinator, staff social workers at summer school, and provide more mental health services during the school year. 

Scott and Kaiser said the district saw an extreme increase in social work referrals during the pandemic. 

Federal COVID relief spending guidelines

Known as ESSER II funds, the money is part of the second federal COVID-19 stimulus package, which was signed in late 2020. The spending is meant to help schools address the impact of COVID-19.

Kansas school districts are submitting their plans for spending the money to the Kansas State Board of Education, which reviewed a batch of 38 plans July 13 and voted on them July 14. 

The KCKPS plan addresses 80% of its allocated funding. 

Kaiser said the district had the option of submitting a one-, two- or three-year plan and settled on a two-year plan to make it less likely it will need to file a request to change if needs shift. A plan for the other 20% of funding will be developed later. 

Overall 169 plans, representing about 59% of Kansas’ districts, have been submitted and approved.

The spending was required to fall under COVID-19-related categories specified in the federal law. About three-quarters of requests so far have been closely related to teaching and learning, according to a presentation during the board meeting. 

Before the board’s vote, the Commissioner’s Task Force on ESSER and Kansas Department of Education staff reviewed the applications and spending plans “to evaluate whether the requests are tied to a pandemic-related need, are reasonable and meet the allowable uses,” according to a description in the board’s July meeting materials. 

The KCKPS plan was developed by a committee of instructional improvement staff with input from the superintendent’s cabinet and principals, Kaiser and Scott said. It was then approved by the school board.

Kaiser said the district didn’t seek wider input because funding restrictions and curriculum needs were confusing and difficult to understand. The district is already seeing some misconceptions about how money can be used, in part because the third batch of ESSER funding, which isn’t available yet, has different purposes. 

But Kaiser said allowable uses were broad enough the district was able to find ways to spend it that addressed the most pressing needs. 

“There wasn’t anything that we considered that didn’t fall into one of those categories,” she said.

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.