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Following Covid Money in Education

EdSource Special Report

How one California school district is using its Covid relief money to help students

Above: Students at Elkhorn School in Lodi Unified launch a bottle rocket during after-school science olympiad club.

Lodi Unified is focusing on social-emotional needs of students and learning loss

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Since March 2020, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on students’ lives and learning. Congress has responded by showering schools with money — $193 billion, so far — to help students catch up academically, cope with mental health struggles and reengage with school.

Lodi Unified, a diverse, mid-size district in the Central Valley, typifies what most districts in California are experiencing as they ponder how to spend their unprecedented funding windfall against a backdrop of dire and escalating needs.

Since 2019, Lodi Unified, which encompasses the city of Lodi, northern Stockton and surrounding rural communities, has seen enrollment drop and its percentage of high-needs students increase.

Last year, more than 70% of the district’s students were low-income, English learners, in foster care, homeless or in the migrant program. With a growing percentage of Latino and Asian students, Lodi’s demographics closely mirror those of the state as a whole.

“This funding has been such a gift. I feel so blessed,” said Patricia White, principal of Elkhorn School, a fourth-through-eighth-grade school in Lodi Unified. “To see the impact on students, to watch the improvement and see them be successful, it’s the best gift you can get. It’s everything, honestly.”

With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the most recent of three major Covid relief bills, California has received more than any other state: A total of $26.3 billion, amounting to an average of $4,260 per student. Schools can spend that money on anything that helps students recover from the pandemic, including mental health counselors, tutors, tablets and Wi-Fi hot spots, and activities like field trips and after-school clubs intended to make school fun again.

In part because of its growing number of high-needs students, Lodi Unified received more than $131 million in state and federal Covid relief funds, roughly a third of its overall budget pre-pandemic, that it must spend by 2024. Initially, the district purchased tablets and other technology to help students and teachers during distance learning, but now that campuses have reopened, the district is focusing on social-emotional initiatives and academic programs that address learning loss.

McNair High School, a predominantly low-income school in Stockton, has spent its Covid relief funds on a slew of new classes, mental health services and materials to smooth students’ return to in-person school. Among the expenditures, so far: 30 new sewing machines for a fashion design class, new cardiopulmonary resuscitation dummies for a health class, a new Advanced Placement statistics class and boxes of ingredients for students in the culinary program.

The school is also providing more college tours and field trips, substance abuse and suicide prevention counselors, and counselors who specialize in mental health and college and career advising. Every student has a tablet, and those who fell behind during distance learning can make up credits after school or during the school day.

Teachers have some new tools, too, such as microphones, so students can hear them talk through their masks.

“This funding, it’s allowed me to say ‘yes’ a lot,” said McNair Principal Mark Dawson. “We’ve all seen the economic ups and downs, so we know this won’t last forever. We want to take advantage of it now and hope it becomes permanent because the needs will still be there.”

One of the more popular additions at McNair is a new theater production class.

Prior to the pandemic, the school only had one such class; extra funding allowed the school to add a second class so more students could enroll.

Students learn lighting and sound design, how to make costumes, how to design and build sets and props, stage management and other behind-the-scenes theater skills.

It’s also been a great avenue for students to make new friends, learn teamwork and empathy and regain social skills lost during distance learning, said teacher Valorie Fitzgerald.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Valorie Fitzgerald shuffles through costumes used for a Harry Potter school production.

“Everyone’s suddenly talking about social-emotional learning, but in the performing arts, this is what we’ve always done,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a magnificent way to learn life skills. … I can’t think of a better use of government money.”

For Koro Ly and her brother Jared, the class has been a lifesaver. The siblings had a rough time during the pandemic.

Their mother was ill with Covid for several months, they had to take on extra responsibilities at home, they transferred to a new school, and distance learning was isolating and dispiriting.

But now their days are filled with whomping willows, flying cars and shrieking shacks, stage props they helped craft for a Harry Potter-theme school production.

“This is just such a close-knit, accepting class. It’s had a big positive impact on me,” said Koro Ly, a senior. “With stage production, you can build an entire world. You know every inch of it. And then to stand back on opening night and see it all up there, it’s just really satisfying.”

Still, deciding how to spend the Covid relief money has not been easy, said district Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Robert Sahli. After collecting input from staff, students and the community, and complying with all the state and federal guidelines, the district still faces a roadblock: hiring.

The statewide teacher shortage has prevented Lodi, and countless other districts, from expanding their teaching staff despite ample funding to do so. The teacher shortage is especially acute for math, science, bilingual education and special education. Fewer teachers earned credentials during the pandemic, according to the Learning Policy Institute, and more teachers left the profession due to burnout or retirement. The result is that districts are competing to hire from a smaller pool of qualified candidates. Hiring tutors and teaching assistants is not much easier.

“You have two choices. You can spend the funds on equipment or personnel,” Sahli said. “The problem is there’s not a lot of people to hire. We could hire more staff tomorrow, but they’re not available.”

Keeping new staff on board after the Covid relief money runs out is a concern for Lodi and most other districts. Lodi administrators are hoping the school board agrees to fund the new positions in 2025 and beyond so layoffs won’t be necessary.

Overall, the risk is worth it, Sahli said.

“We are thrilled that this funding will provide our students with much-needed additional opportunities for both academic and social-emotional support,” Sahli said.

Elkhorn School, a fourth-through-eighth-grade school in Stockton, has partly solved the hiring problem by looking for staff in unusual places. A new after-school chess club funded by the Covid relief money, for example, is being taught by the school custodian.

A longtime chess player, Shaun Montemayor thought students might enjoy learning the game as a fun after-school activity. After all, he said, chess helped him get through the long months when campus was closed. So he pitched the idea to the school principal, Patricia White, and she approved it.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Shaun Montemayor plays a game of chess with seventh grader Spenser Avellar.

About 40 students regularly attend the chess club, pairing up at outdoor picnic tables with oversize chessboards and plastic black-and-white pieces. On a recent afternoon, some students had a total, razor-like focus on the game before them. Others were talking and joking and moving from table to table, while some were animatedly debating strategy.

“The pandemic was tough on kids…but chess can help. There’s a lot of life lessons in chess — patience, how to plan ahead, discipline, focus, how to win, how to lose. And it’s fun,” Montemayor said.

Spenser Avellar, a seventh-grader, said that if it wasn’t for the Elkhorn chess club, he’d just go straight home after school. That might be OK, he said, except he doesn’t have a chessboard at home.

“It’s an addicting game. There’s so many options,” he said. “Since I started playing chess I’ve learned to think before I do anything. Before I used to be, ‘OK, I’m just going to do what I’m going to do.’ Now I think about it first.”

Kaden Trinidad, who’s in fifth grade, has been playing chess for years but comes to the chess club to hang out with friends and learn new moves. He said it’s much more entertaining than playing video games or chess online.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Fifth grader Kaden Trinidad concentrates before making a move during a chess game.

Abraham Flores, an eighth grader, said the chess club has cheered him up after a difficult year, when he lost a grandparent to Covid and was “super lonely” when his school closed due to the pandemic.

“No one in my family likes chess, so it’s good to come here and have people to play with,” he said. “When you play chess against someone, it’s always a learning experience. I always learn new moves. It’s never the same old thing.”

Chess is just one of the initiatives funded by Covid relief money at Elkhorn. There are more mental health counselors, an after-school science club where students build rockets and compete against other schools, a homework club staffed with tutors and aides to help students who fall behind, and schoolwide team-building activities.

The impact of these additions has been immediate and “phenomenal,” said White, the principal at Elkhorn. Students’ behavior and social skills have dramatically improved, she said, and most students who lagged academically during distance learning have caught up.

In deciding what to prioritize, social-emotional activities such as the chess club were an obvious choice, White said. Students would never be able to focus on classwork until they felt relaxed, comfortable and connected to school again, she said.

“Without these programs, students’ grades would not be where they are. More students would be tuned out. They wouldn’t have the work ethic,” White said. “The effects of (these programs) have been huge. … You can see the happiness.”

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