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Report card on schools: the impact of the pandemic

By Stacy Gittleman

On the surface, things seem to be getting back to normal in this second full school year since the onset of the COVID pandemic. For the second straight year, students have returned full time to their physical classrooms, and school events like back-to-school night, concerts and basketball games have long since resumed with hardly any evidence of masking or social distancing.

Though COVID case numbers continue to fluctuate, the days of children staying home and attempting to learn over Zoom for months on end and learning terminology like “hybrid” or “asynchronous” may finally be in our rear view mirrors.

But what does a return to “normal” even mean in today's learning environment? Delve a little further down, past the cheerful unmasked faces of children interacting with each other and their teachers. Schools, reflective of the larger society as a whole, are still suffering from fissures that were long ago put into motion. Chronic stressors include uneven distribution of resources, severe teacher and staffing shortages, and inadequate training of those in the profession, as well as outdated buildings – some which are a century old. The pandemic did not create these problems, but they have definitely pushed them into the spotlight.

Daniel (not his real name) was a junior at Bloomfield Hills High School when the pandemic began. He said the pandemic erased many hard-earned performing arts opportunities for the spring and summer of 2020. Though he graduated high school on time in the spring of 2021, he felt the drastic pivot to solitary and online learning environments did not prepare him for the rigors of college.

Daniel, like many of his peers, continues to struggle with depression, anxiety and attentive disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States. In 2021, more than a third (37 percent) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and almost half – 44 percent – reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

“I was always an engaged learner in class,” said Daniel, who was on medical leave for mental health reasons after attending college for one semester. “Tests in high school were easy for me, but I was always challenged with completing and submitting written assignments. I was diagnosed with ADHD right before the pandemic started.

“Then, all grading was based on doing assignments that we had to do on our own,” he said.“When the shutdown happened, we were provided a Google spreadsheet with links to do homework. But like a lot of my friends, I didn’t do any of the work until the very end of the school year. There was no motivation to do anything, there was no structure, it didn’t feel like real school.”

Daniel said the pandemic took a hit on the mental health of himself and many of his friends.

“I want to say maybe more than half the people I know in their late teens or early twenties are having mental health struggles. I know I’m not in the minority. “

A most obvious and easily quantifiable education gap that is playing out across the nation is declining math scores, one of two key tests, along with reading, which fourth and eighth grade students across the state are tested in annually. For while parents may have been likely to read to their children at home at the height of school shutdowns, few may have included long form division or solving for x as a bedtime routine.

According to data from the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan’s average score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests for both math and reading dropped from 236.2 in 2019 to 232.2 in 2022 for fourth graders, and from 280.3 to 272.6 for eighth graders. Nationally, average scores dropped five points in fourth grade and eight points in eighth grade.

Despite drops in scoring in both math and reading, Michigan, improved in NAEP state rankings in fourth grade math, and is now ranked 36th compared to 42nd in 2019. NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, is a congressionally mandated large-scale assessment. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is often called the “nation's report card,” because it provides national, state and district-level results on students' academic progress. In eighth grade math, Michigan’s ranking rose to 26th in 2022 compared to 28th in 2019. However, 4th and 8th grade students in local schools did experience a modest dip in their math scores on the M-STEP and PSAT between 2018 and 2022.

M-STEP, Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, is a 21st century computer-based assessment designed to gauge how well students are mastering state standards. The PSAT is the preliminary SAT test, a standardized test by the College Board, given to 8th graders in the state of Michigan as an assessment tool.

“It remains to be seen what are the long-term affects the pandemic will have on our elementary school-aged children, which to me is a bigger concern than our high schoolers,” said Kai Cortina, professor of psychology at the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at University of Michigan. “The real problems will be seen among children with special learning needs who spent almost an entire year without in-person instruction or services. Children in these grade levels need to be in-person in school a certain number of days within the school year in order to absorb and learn the material to give them foundations to advance their skills as they move up in grades. They were in school in-person half the days they were supposed to. After I looked at the data, I wrote to the superintendent of schools in Ann Arbor asking for an appointment with her to discuss the findings. She sent me a nice email in return but never found the time to meet. I sent specific questions then to members of the school board, impressing to them that if they do not do very specific things to catch those kids up, they will continue to fall behind.”

Many education administrators contacted were reluctant to use standardized testing as the only metric for student progress, preferring see more individualized or small group teaching and tutoring to catch kids up post-pandemic. Some criticize calling these metrics setbacks following a year when the bulk of children under the stress of the pandemic may have not absorbed any learning at all. More problematic than an academic lag, the social isolation took a hard toll on younger students in grammar school grades.

Middle school teacher Crystal Jabiro is celebrating her 21st year in the profession. Teaching has always been a lot of hard work, she acknowledged, but the last few years have been the most challenging. The thing she notices most among her students coming out of not being in a classroom since they were in the fourth grade: many simply do not know how to function in a classroom.

“The toughest thing for me, and for them, is class size,” said Jabiro, who prefers to not disclose which district she teaches in for privacy’s sake. “Lawyers do not see 150 clients a day, and maybe if a doctor works in a hospital they may see 150 patients a day, but that would be rare. A teacher is charged with giving attention to 150 children a day, or if I have a class with 33 kids in it at a time, and I have one child who really needs me to stay on top of them because they have lost all ability to work independently, how do I attend to the other 32?”

Jabiro said that while not many new teachers have been hired, existing teachers on staff have been offered modest bumps in their salary if they agree to do extra tutoring during lunch hours or after schools to help kids catch up. She said it is going to take time for these kids to catch up to where they should be, explaining they have lost ground emotionally and socially, noting these skills are vital to attain first before they can regain their academic footing.

“Right now, things are a bit messy. I have to repeat instructions as simple as ‘read paragraph one and two and then answer question one,’ a few times before they get it,” Jabiro said. “For this generation of sixth graders, by the time they reach high school, they might have it together – but they will get there.”

“The pandemic has only exacerbated existing issues that we're dealing with in school and our larger society,” said Professor Roland Coloma at the Division of Teacher Education, College of Education at Wayne State University. “It exacerbated learning opportunities and academic achievements, particularly for students who were already struggling, such as those who are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners, and those in low-income households who had inadequate support at home.”

Coloma emphasized that many families lacked technology, such as home computers or high speed WiFi at home. Even if kids could get online, he said, they may not have had an adult caregiver at home helping them navigate this new virtual learning environment. These are the major student groups that have had dramatic negative impact during the pandemic.

Speaking with caution and from a statewide perspective, Coloma emphasized that Michigan hung onto its mask mandates and school closures a bit longer than other states, and it is “tricky” to say if these decisions, looking back, were the wisest for the sake of the mental and academic well-being for students.

“We seem to think about the academic and the nonacademic pieces of learning in compartmentalized ways,” Coloma mused. “I think the pandemic has pointed out to us that we have to think about academic and social aspects simultaneously.”

Help for beleaguered educators and their families came from the federal government in the form of lots of money in what is becoming known as the largest infusion of federal dollars into the American education system in the nation’s history. Known as the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund (ESSER), the funds were given in three phases.

On March 27, 2020, Congress set aside approximately $13.2 billion of the $30.75 billion allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund through the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for ESSER. The department awarded these grants to State Educational Agencies (SEAs) for the purpose of providing funding to local educational agencies (LEAs).

This money was expected to be used to create safer learning environments by bumping up funding for personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other methods to support safe, in-person learning instruction.

Next, Congress signed the 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act into law on December 27, 2020, and provided an additional $54.3 billion for the ESSER II Fund. On March 11, 2021, the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) Act was signed into law and created the third installment of funding. The unprecedented $1.9 trillion package of assistance measures included $122 billion for the ARP ESSER Fund, sometimes referred to as ESSER III.

While ESSER I and ESSER II funds were made available to states immediately, ARP ESSER funds were delivered in two phases, with two-thirds of it made available in March 2021. Schools have until September 2024 to obligate funds and early 2025 to draw them down. Districts must spend at least 20 percent of funds to address learning loss, but according to the U.S. Department of Education, districts can use the money for any expense seen as necessary to addressing the pandemic’s impacts and even encourages states and districts to consider “pre-existing challenges that, if left unaddressed, will impede recovery from the pandemic.”

Michigan was allocated a total of $3,722,478,258 in ESSER funding. As of as of September 30, 2022, Michigan has spent 37.3 percent – or $2,149,390,621 of its total ESSER funding of $5,768,583,528 across its 818 public school districts. Coming into question is how Michigan’s school districts are spending all this money. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states and the U.S. Department of Education are prohibited from directing or restricting how districts spend their ESSER allotments.

The federal ESSER money was distributed on a need basis, with schools with higher percentages of economically challenged and marginalized populations given larger shares.

Detailed district-by-district information on ESSER funding for this article was mainly derived from the U.S. Department of Education, Education Stabilization Fund website.

“Kudos should be given to the Biden government for providing necessary help to the school districts, and the Whitmer administration for determining how to properly distribute this funding,” said WSU’s Coloma. “Because the pivot (from in-person to online instruction) was so immediate, school districts utilized the funding to equip staff and their students with the needed – and very costly – technology. Each student needed to be provided with a tablet or laptop if they didn’t have one at home. For effective hybrid learning to happen, school buildings needed to have powerful broadband WiFi.”

Coloma added that initial ESSER money was used to properly train teachers in how to use all this technology. “After all, most of our teachers are trained to teach in front of a classroom, not in front of a screen. All of us, from elementary teachers to instructors of higher education, needed to immediately learn how to teach online.”

On ESSER Funding, U-M Professor Cortina added there is still plenty of time to allocate the ESSER funding, and it would be unwise to spend it too quickly.

“Common sense says when you have a lot of money, it is best to spend it slowly,” said Cortina. “To undo all those learning deficits, you must have a long-term plan. I am not a fan of standardized testing, so it would be most beneficial if schools can use this money somehow to individually assess their students in a meaningful way. For example, the third graders going into fourth grade – that would be the best way to spend the money to help these children catch up.”

Though ESSER funding and other state and federal financial resources to the country’s education system are a welcome infusion of support, Tara Kilbride, PhD, assistant director for research at Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), pointed to the fact that Michigan’s failings to its students began long before the 2020 pandemic and it will take years to offset long lingering challenges that have hurt the quality of education in Michigan.

For starters, Kilbride pointed out how Michigan ranked last for education funding growth between 1995-2015. In these pre-pandemic years, the teacher shortage in the state was well underway, coupled with gaps in access to technology and the fact that the state Department of Education had begun to lose its overarching oversight to local school districts.

“Michigan is characterized by a history of strong local control, limiting the authority of many state-level actors,” Kilbride said. “Stakeholders from administrators to staff across the state interviewed by EPIC also revealed trends of burnout and a negativity on the wellbeing of all stakeholders in every strata of the education infrastructure.”

An EPIC study from October 2022 found that although the majority of Michigan students demonstrated at least some achievement growth from fall 2020 to fall 2021, they were less likely than students pre-pandemic to achieve a full year of achievement growth. Students with access to some in-person instruction in 2020-21 were less affected than those whose districts offered only fully remote instruction, and achievement gaps between these two groups of students grew during the 2020-21 school year before improving slightly over summer 2021.

“From our most recent findings, we see a mix of good and bad news, but our findings in Michigan are consistent with what's been coming out in other places across the across the U.S.,” explained Kilbride. “It's clear that the pandemic has had – and is continuing to have – this tremendous impact on students, schools and educators. Of course, after such a long time without in-person learning, with many students lacking technological resources or adequate adult supervision or a quiet place to learn at home, it would be shocking if it didn’t.”

She continued: “On average, we see students falling further below national norms over the course of the 2020-21 school year, with early signs of recovery through the following school year. But they're still behind where we would have wanted them to be. There is a huge amount of variation. Some students seem to be doing fine, but others are struggling tremendously and have not demonstrated any growth on these assessments to the extent that we can measure that since the start of the pandemic, which is certainly concerning.”

Moving out from the pandemic, Kilbride said that training, recruiting and retaining teachers will be a priority for Michigan for a long time to come. “Teaching preparation programs in Michigan have been on the decline for years before the pandemic. We were seeing a slight increase a year or two before the pandemic, so we need to wait and see how that will change availability of teaching professionals. We hope that higher education students will not only enroll in our coursework, but eventually wind up in the classroom.”

Kilbride pointed to a July 2022 EPIC paper that further examined the ongoing severity of Michigan’s staffing shortages. One unnamed participant for the study shared: “…it is coming to a critical point where school buildings are closing because they don't have enough staff to supervise the students or to transport their students or to feed their students.”

Participants shared examples of principals and, in some cases, superintendents, covering classes amidst shortages.

After multiple requests for phone interviews with a school superintendent, school board president or a school administrator in five school districts – Birmingham Public Schools, Bloomfield Hills Schools, Troy School District, Royal Oak Schools and West Bloomfield School District – every school district contacted for this article instead offered written responses. Royal Oak Schools completely turned down requests for comment either in writing or via phone interviews.

As in the rest of the state, student enrollment throughout Oakland County is declining, and declining enrollment translates into less state money for a district. The county enrolled 184,262 students in the 2015-2016 school year and by 2021-2022 had been reduced to 173,845.

In a released statement, Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Oakland Schools, said Oakland Schools offers high-quality supports to all school districts and charter schools in Oakland County that encompass professional learning opportunities, literacy and math training programs.

“We also understand that for accelerated learning to occur, students must feel safe, cared for, and know that they belong in our schools,” said Cook-Robinson. “We are deeply focused on equity and supporting the Whole Child Model. We are partnering with Oakland Community Health Network, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and other community partners to build capacity around comprehensive school safety. Additionally, we have increased staffing to support building stronger mental health systems in districts and charter schools, as well as effectively utilizing state and federal funds for mental health.  We are focused on stronger, more comprehensive school safety measures to provide for physical and psychological safety for all students and staff.”

Birmingham Public Schools (BPS) Superintendent Dr. Embekka Roberson stated that the COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented challenges on school districts across the country.

 “At Birmingham Public Schools, we’re committed to helping our students have the best academic outcomes to prepare them for success after graduation,” she said. “We work hard every day to promote our students’ academic growth, support their social and emotional wellness, and keep them safe and secure.”

As part of preparing for this work, over 80 district staff members last summer participated in the district’s first School Improvement Institute, where they learned tools used by districts nationwide to advance student outcomes.

“We went a step further and brought together leadership teams from every school in the district for this in-person planning event,” explained Roberson. “We introduced our staff to our new strategic plan and looked at test results, surveys from students and families, and other data to guide our goals and action plans. They set instructional priorities and developed school improvement plans with goals on reading, math and wellness. “  

Derby Middle School also welcomed Jake, a therapy dog, to help students deal with anxiety and other challenges worsened by the pandemic.

Roberson pointed to a survey taken of families at Quarton Elementary School, which found that the pandemic left families feeling less informed and disconnected.

“Parent Teacher Association members have been working hard to enhance connections with families and get them involved. They also introduced Wellness Wednesdays to share tips and coping techniques from counseling staff, and Thankful Thursdays to show gratitude to staff,” she wrote.

Consistent with the trend of declining student enrollment in Oakland County, Roberson said Birmingham Public Schools have shrunk by 1,000 students in the last decade, including 600 in the last two years. Unfortunately, she said the district had to make some staffing changes this school year “as we realign our district to meet the current reality. This year’s student body is 7,329 and the district, with 9.4 percent of its population living in an economically disadvantage household, has a 18:1 student teacher ratio. The district receives $17,166 per pupil in state funding for the current school year.” The district reduced its staff by 105 full-time positions at the end of last school year, including 46 teacher/certified staff, 19 paraprofessionals and two administrators.

Roberson continued: “Thanks to our team’s diligence and hard work, we’re seeing many families return, as well as new families interested in joining our district, and our enrollment numbers for this school year are better than anticipated. We offer open enrollment options to families who live within our district, as well as a tuition-based program for families who live outside the district boundaries.”

The district gave a detailed account of its ESSER dollar spending in a report it submitted to the 2021 American Rescue Act Plan, as required by every school district receiving funds in the nation.

According to the report, BPS was awarded $10,495,529 in total ESSER funding. At its March 2022 school board of education meeting, it voted 5-0 to approve an amended 2021-22 school year budget, which initially totaled about $122 million. The ESSER money was calculated into the general fund budget to lower the district deficit from $14.5 million to $3.5 million. The largest portion of ESSER funding will come through approval of a grant for $7.5 million dollars. A portion of that is required to go to after school and summer school programs, with the remaining $6.06 million put toward lowering the deficit. The district also looked into options to accommodate for the loss in per pupil funding drop in enrollment.

In its submission to the 2021 American Rescue Plan Report, Birmingham Schools reported that thanks to policies in distancing and masking, PPE and proper facility cleanliness, it remained open for in-person learning for all of the 2021-2022 school year.

The report stated: “One of the greatest threats to keeping our schools operational for in-person learning was staffing classrooms and the overall morale of educators and staff. (With ESSER funding), the district allocated $628,127 to teacher retention bonuses and $220,270 to bonuses to other staff required to keep our schools open for in person learning. These bonuses are designed to support teachers who have been asked to continue teaching in person and to live stream quarantined students into their classroom to ensure continuous and safe learning, as well as non-instructional staff that extended their work to support activities such as case tracking, quarantine notification, increase sanitizing and cleaning. Remaining fully staffed is essential to keeping our instructional staff in the classroom, our buildings clean and safe and students in classrooms learning.”

In order to offset learning gaps that students experienced during the height of the pandemic lockdown, BPS prioritized interventional opportunities for K-8 students, such as providing reading specialists. Some schools in the district have more than one full-time reading specialist, all of whom have completed the Orton Gillingham 30-hour professional learning course and deliver intervention to students daily.

“This strategy supports those students most deeply impacted by the lost instructional time,” the report stated. “Our budget outlines dedicating 20 percent, or $212,099, of our ESSER funds to support salary and benefits for two reading specialists.”

Similar to what occurred in several other local school districts, there was much heated debate that sometimes bordered on threatening speech from both sides of the argument within Bloomfield Hills Schools (BHS) on whether or not to keep schools open and have in-person instruction – or to prolong distance or hybrid learning formats that may have slowed the spread of COVID, but which is now understood to have been detrimental to the academic and mental wellbeing of students.

BHS Superintendent Pat Watson said in each decision there was a weighing in of how it would impact the mental health of students. “Getting students physically back in school as soon as it was safe was always a priority,” said Watson. “As a district, we also leaned heavily into social-emotional learning and mental health supports during the (height of the) pandemic through the present day. Bloomfield Hills Schools put a team together during the summer of 2020 that created a plan to support the social-emotional needs of both students and staff, which has continued to be a priority. BHS has also hired additional social workers and implemented a therapy dog program.”

Bloomfield Schools’ enrollment has held at a little over 5,000 students on average since 2013. The district has a tuition program for out-of-district students for K-12 that costs $12,000 per student. The district also enrolls a select group of students at Bowers Academy, an alternative experiential high school program based at Bowers School Farm. Students may attend through a criteria-based school of choice program accepting qualified students from all districts within Oakland County.

“District enrollment was stable on average over the years leading up to the pandemic shutdown, despite larger graduating classes for many of those years,” Watson explained. “New students enrolled, which offset the larger outgoing classes. However, the most recent June 2022 graduating class was the largest in years, which was included as part of the district’s budget projections and capital planning.”

He continued: “Part of BHS’s annual budgeting process is staffing based on projected/actual enrollment and monitoring class sizes by grade level in each building. This process occurs over months, from spring through the beginning of the new school year. Enrollment changes (increases and decreases) occur across the district buildings, so watching class sizes is important when determining whether staffing is needed. In Bloomfield Hills Schools, we put a priority on keeping small class sizes. BHS has a 17:1 student teacher ratio.”

As part of its population projection planning, the district passed a $220 million bond in 2020 to reconfigure and renovate several buildings. The district is transitioning into four K-5 elementary buildings compared to separate K-3 and K-4 buildings. The district's three buildings housing middle school students as well as upper elementary school students will become two middle schools for grades 6-8. Bloomfield Hills Middle School will become South Hills Middle School. The second middle school will be on the former Lahser High School property.

Bloomfield Hills Schools was allocated $7,975,140 in ESSER funding. Priority spending went to support students from low-income families, from racial and ethnic groups, English learners, children with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, foster care, migratory students and by gender, said Watson. According to the February 2022 BHS Board of Education report, 51.4 percent of ESSER funding had to be earmarked to address pandemic learning loss with evidence-based interventions, with10.3 percent of the funding going towards the implementation of evidence-based summer enrichment programs. Of its ESSER II funding, the district spent $333,000 on summer programming. Bloomfield Virtual staffing, mostly funded by ESSER monies, totaled to $225,391. The report also said that the district spent the money to hire extra elementary school teachers, created smaller class sizes to minimize the potential spread of COVID, offered a continued virtual option for students for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year even though classes returned to full-time in-person instruction in the fall of 2021.

Watson said that during this 2022-2023 school year, staffing is returning to pre-pandemic levels, helping to avoid a funding cliff while still maintaining the district’s legacy of low class sizes.

“Keeping in mind that this was a one-time funding source, the district thoughtfully planned for use of the monies, focusing on supporting specific students' learning and safety,” said Watson. “With the additional ESSER resources, the district was able to redirect budget allocations from eligible special education categories funded by ESSER to allow for expanded staffing to support student learning as well as distancing for health and wellness.”

When it comes to looking at test scores and a student’s academic progress, Watson said there are several different lenses to view student achievement through that may not always be reflected in standardized tests.

“At Bloomfield Hills Schools, we utilize a balanced assessment approach that includes diagnostics in literacy and math, summative and formative assessments, observation, feedback on student wellness, combined with regular progress monitoring,” he explained. “All of this data is important to us and it is used to respond to our students’ needs and help us shape the student experience. The state assessment data are measures that help inform us how students are responding to our programming from a systems level approach.”

Watson added that data is reviewed in cycles throughout each academic year.

“We noticed our student outcomes trending upward even during such a chaotic period of time,” he said. “It serves as an indicator that we are heading in the right direction with the changes that have taken place.”

Kerry Birmingham, director of communications and strategic initiatives for Troy Public Schools (TPS) said the district has always incorporated birth rate data and population shift projections into their budgeting and planning, deploying outside experts such as Plante Moran to do its forecasting. Troy enrollment is currently at 12,552, topping out at 13,176 in the 2017-2018 school year.

“Our enrollment projections have been accurate over time, and we fully anticipated that it would decline somewhat and then flatten moving forward,” Birmingham responded in an email. “Obviously, the pandemic exacerbated the situation, but perhaps not for obvious reasons. For instance, we have experienced a sharper than normal decline in enrollment due to families who could not renew their visas in a timely manner, forcing them to return to their home countries indefinitely and perhaps permanently.”

Birmingham continued: “We experienced a bubble of unusually high enrollment for a few years, so we added staff to accommodate the number of students we were seeing. But our own enrollment projections showed that the bubble was not sustainable, so a decline was anticipated. But then of course, the pandemic hit, and we had significant additional needs that are not present in a typical year.”

Birmingham said the district is in full compliance with all ESSER funding requirements, including surveying its community and posting the plan for resource allocation on its website.

According to September 2022 data from the U.S. Department of Education, the district was granted a total $13,794,492 in ESSER funding, yet the district affirms that their records show they received $17,878, 935, and external audits by Plante Moran show no discrepancies. The TPS 2022-2023 budget lists federal allocations of $8,114,184 for its general fund and $1,562,433 of federal funding for its food service fund, but did not specify if these were ESSER dollars.

The Department of Education maintains the $13.7 million amount is accurate and there could be most likely a reporting lag on the part of the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).

William G. DiSessa, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education, said they are “appropriately reporting what has been approved for the entity by individual grant. This aligns with what MDE has reported to the U.S. Department of Education (USED) system (ESF) for Michigan. When we look at what has been allocated and approved, the FFATA reporting is accurate as of today,” as of December 13.

According to a document provided by Troy School District, the district since the 2020-2021 has been allocated ESSER funding on the following: elementary curriculum: $214,271; instructional technology: $32,140; custodial pay/COVID testing clinic: $843,258; summer school: $102,300; credit recovery; $103,950; after school support: $25,000; summer school staff stipends: $22,500; math recovery salaries and benefits: $1,895,186; ESL salaries and benefits/summer programs/tutoring: $12,385,362; special education salaries and benefits: $598,620; staff COVID stipends and virtual learning: $5,021,042.

“There were very tight restrictions on much of our COVID-19 funding,” explained Birmingham. “Depending on the round, we may have had to purchase PPE, testing, additional disinfecting supplies/staff, etc. The latter funds were earmarked for learning loss, often for specific subgroups, and we spent or are spending those funds entirely on that issue – for resources such as summer school, tutoring, math recovery programs, to name a few.”

Because of the financial decisiveness of its board of education, Birmingham said Troy Public Schools throughout the pandemic was able to maintain critical staffing levels and add services students needed, such as social workers, at each of the district’s six elementary schools and hired additional counselors at the secondary level to deal with mental health issues.

Birmingham emphasized that Troy Public Schools brought students back to in-person learning in mid-September 2021, which was earlier than many other local schools, yet also maintained a hybrid system to allow for flexibility for families who were not yet comfortable to return to in-person learning.

The district also added teachers as "wellness coordinators" for one-on-one help during the hybrid period, even when classes were 100 percent virtual in the first days of September 2021. When the governor shut down schools, Troy Schools maintained a free in-seat program where any student could come in person and receive supervision, extra help and support in a socially-distanced setting. Later, it added a free COVID testing program to allow those exposed to remain in-seat and not miss class.

“All of these services came with additional costs not always fully covered by COVID dollars, but we incurred them because it was what our students needed,” she said.

Since 2005, Troy Public Schools has participated in a limited schools-of-choice program which admits a small number of students in kindergarten and first grade, as well as a small number of middle school students. Birmingham explained that for the last several years, the district only had space available for the siblings of current school of choice students, and have not been able to open slots to new families.

Birmingham maintained that every decision the district makes is based on fulfilling the vision of its “Project 2026: World Class for All” strategic plan which provides the framework around principles such as creating deep learners from early childhood through career, equity and well-being and building capacity for all.

“During the pandemic, we made decisions based on what students needed in a time of crisis, while still working within that framework,” she said. “We evaluated every decision with what we knew at the time, relied on the guidance of experts and dug in to provide what our students required, which was a safe and healthy environment, routine, and support. No one ever wants to relive the past few years, but our staff did incredible work and made many personal sacrifices in the best interest of our students. “

At the West Bloomfield School District (WBSD), COVID funding was utilized to implement summer enrichment programs and extra learning opportunities for its students, and those who were assessed with the greatest learning deficits were offered extra support.

Since the summer of 2021, summer enrichment opportunities have been offered to 200 students in grades K-4, 120 students in 5-8, and 300 students at the high school level. The district’s enrollment has been declining since 2013, when it enrolled 6,284 students. It currently enrolls 5,089 students. The district has a 24:1 student teacher ratio.

“We have established a budget to help fund high quality instruction for these students over the next two summers,” explained West Bloomfield School District Superintendent Dania Bazzi. “Meanwhile, we will provide extended learning opportunities for students to ensure that we can provide targeted instruction and address unfinished learning due to interruptions created by COVID-19.”

Breaking into smaller groups, West Bloomfield teachers have facilitated guided instruction that targets literacy and math skills intended to lessen competency gaps children may have experienced during the pandemic. In addition to focusing on academic improvements, Bazzi said there will also be opportunities to grow emotional intelligence through social-emotional learning opportunities.

“The district is responding to the academic, social, and emotional needs of our students, specifically those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 by investing in a robust K-12 online learning academy called Lakers Online, which currently enrolls 354 elementary, middle and high school students from families who strongly expressed a desire for continued online learning,” she said.

Bazzi continued, “In order to appropriately support our families and seek a creative solution to guarantee consistent attendance so that we prevent additional unfinished learning, we created this online academy, staffed with teachers who can provide synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences The district is using remaining ESSER funds to pay for this academy.”

Education experts and top policy makers contend that the best way to use ESSER dollars for a post-COVID educational comeback, especially in underperforming or marginalized public school districts, is to create a cadre of highly-skilled and trained tutors. According to reports from Chalkbeat, however, is there has been no top-down guidance from the Michigan Department of Education on how to create a robust tutoring program funded by federal dollars. And while 14 other states, including Illinois and Tennessee, are helping to recruit tutors, teachers in Michigan like middle school teacher Crystal Jabiro say what they are seeing is that districts are asking teachers already on staff to spend additional hours in school for a modest pay increase.

So, families, if they can afford it, continue to reach out to private tutors like Annette Berker Kanar, a native of West Bloomfield who now lives in Florida and tutors children remotely across North America. The third-generation teacher said 35 years of tutoring has given her a broad perspective of how mathematics is taught, and she was disturbed to see how the subject was “watered down” during the pandemic lockdown.

“I really do think the support is there (at the high school level), she said. “I think that the schools are spending a lot of time trying to get the curriculum back to where it once was. During the pandemic, I was mortified at what the geometry students were learning and how everything was multiple choice and open book. But the pandemic is over. It's time to get geometry and algebra back to where they were before the pandemic. We need to train our 9th and 10th graders back into a more rigid curriculum. Schools are trying to get back up to speed with their curriculum, because they've got to produce kids that are going to be ready to go to college. The days of waiving college entrance exams, like the SAT and ACT, they have come to an end.”


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