The academic and emotional effects of COVID on students are giving a new urgency to local school districts’ requests for increased staffing and student support.
Social workers, tech support, expanded summer schooling and substitute teachers are on the list of budgeting priorities for the year 2021-22. While most of the districts said that these requests would have been made even without the virus, the fear of pandemic-driven gaps in learning and heightened mental health needs have added urgency to the requests, school officials say..
In an East Lyme Board of Education meeting on December 14, school Superintendent Jefferey Newton highlighted both social-emotional needs of students and identifying achievement gaps as major priorities for next year.
Newton said that they had always planned to add another social worker at the high school level, but the pandemic has magnified the need they were seeing.
“We continue to see students struggle, and that’s growing,” said Newton, adding that on the day of the meeting they had had to make a number of 211 referrals for students.
“It’s been a challenge,” he said. “And it’s going to continue being a challenge.”
Newton also requested $162,508 to hire elementary school and middle school math tutors, another request from previous years that has been given new urgency by the pandemic.
“We are going to see gaps with many students who are not doing well with remote learning,” said Newton.
Jan Peruccio, superintendent of schools of Old Saybrook, said that the school was planning to add a social worker and a special education teacher to their staff. She said that part of their duties would be to deal with the fallout from the pandemic. She also said that she expected already existing support staff, such as interventionists and integration specialists, to have a “full schedule” next year.
“We have been concerned about increased anxiety and other mental health issues among students, and have been increasing staffing in this area overtime,” Peruccio wrote in an email. “We anticipate a continuation of increased need.”
While superintendents say they are prepared for potential drops in student achievement, their understanding of exactly how much damage the pandemic has caused is preliminary at best. Connecticut did not administer any state assessments in the spring of 2020, and local districts are just beginning to compile data on how students are faring compared to prior years.
Some of the superintendents are reporting encouraging results. Ian Neviaser, superintendent of schools in Lyme-Old Lyme, said that according to the internal assessments, students performance is a little lower than previous years, but “not so significantly behind that it requires any kind of significant intervention.”
Neviaser attributes this to the fact that Lyme-Old Lyme Schools were able to remain open for in-person learning for the vast majority of the fall of 2020.
Susan Austin, superintendent of Groton Public Schools, said that Groton had done a pilot assessment of their students in May, and then another one when the students returned to school in September. She said that beyond the usual “summer slide,” they hadn’t seen any further decrease in student performance, which she said they were “delighted” about.
Since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, Groton has fluctuated between a hybrid model and an all-distance learning model, and Austin said her biggest concern was a lack of engagement. She said students who had once been excited to learn were now disconnected. The students who had failed classes, she said, were typically the students who didn’t log on or come to classes.
Groton used federal CARES funding to hire additional paraprofessionals, substitute teachers and teachers to assist with remote learning. She said she also hired additional social workers, who went knocking on doors to check on remote learners who weren’t engaged. According to a budget document from the October board of education meeting, Groton schools intend to use additional CARES funding to pay for software, substitute teachers and social workers that might be needed through September of 2022.
Austin said it was critical to continue checking student’s progress, since the pandemic could still have negative consequences on student achievement down the road.
“If you don’t assess, you won’t know,” said Austin.
In part to guard against that chance, she’s planning to expand the school’s summer program to offer regular education for elementary students and enrichment, SAT prep and course recovery for middle and high schoolers. She said she didn’t want to wait until the end of the summer for children who failed a class to make it up.
Region 4 — which includes Essex, Chester and Deep River schools — is also directing more funding toward its extended school year program, an increase which Superintendent Brian White told CT Examiner was the result of routine salary increases. At a budget workshop on December 16, however, White said that the district would be requesting an additional $40,000 to support “increased need” for the program, with the anticipation that there would be learning gaps for students because of the situation caused by COVID this year.
Increased reliance on technology has also added new expenses to school budgets, as districts find themselves needing to replace old devices and hire experts who can troubleshoot problems.
The Lyme-Old Lyme School District is budgeting nearly $300,000 for updated technology. The money would add a fifth technology facilitator to the staff who could help manage applications like AdobeCloud, G Suite and SchoolMessenger.
“I tried to do it with the current staffing we have now, but they are entirely too busy,” said Ronald Turner, director of facilities and technology.
The district also plans to upgrade devices used by kindergarteners and first graders to the Chromebooks used in the older grades, to update the network and the high school sound system, to replace desktop computers and to buy 40 mobile touch screens to replace a projector.
East Lyme is budgeting $60,000 for a full-time IT technician when federal CARES Act funding for the position expires and would need to become part of the regular budget.
“Now that every student has a device, there is a greater need to support issues that might come forth,” he said.
Tech support was also a factor in budget discussions at Region 4, where the district is setting aside about $34,000 to increase their network technicians from 10-month to 12-month positions.
The Cost of COVID
COVID expenses don’t appear to be driving school budgets up in Connecticut beyond usual increases. Districts have largely been able to offset these changes through a combination of grants and decreases in other areas of the budget.
Austin said that the CARES money, along with other grants her district receives, has meant she’s been able to keep the budget increase relatively low.
“I’m really working with a 1.1 percent budget increase, and hoping I can even do better than that,” she said.
Peruccio said in a budget meeting that Old Saybrook was requesting a budget increase of .24 percent this year, compared to .7 percent and 2.75 percent in the two prior years. Dropping enrollment levels meant that the district would employ fewer teachers overall, and the school was able to decrease tuition and benefits costs.
And even where district budgets have been driven up, the major drivers do not appear to be these COVID-related changes. In East Lyme, the social worker, math tutors and IT person account for about $284,000 of a proposed $2.115 million, or 4.16 percent, increase.
In Lyme-Old Lyme, the increase in technology makes up about 25 percent of the entire $1.18 million increase requested in the budget. Savings in other areas brings the total amount down to $677,606, or a 1.95 percent increase. Neviaser said that although the percent appears high, the fact that the budget was negative the previous year meant that the average increase for the past two school years was 0.87 percent.