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Howard schools to get $19 million in federal COVID grant, with most going toward tutoring, summer school

Last summer, the Howard County Public School System received $13 million in federal CARES Act funding, most of which went to purchasing laptops for students to use in virtual learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

From the second relief package passed by Congress in December, however, the $19.3 million the district is receiving will mostly go toward “student progress,” according to Caroline Walker, the system’s executive director of program innovation and student well-being.

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“We want to make sure all students have access to the instruction that they may not have gotten as much of during this school year,” Walker said. “The money will be invested heavily in summer programming, after-school programming and evening school programming, as well as instructional materials that will benefit students.”

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II Fund, a grant given to school districts across the country, comes from the $900 billion Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law in December. The Howard County Board of Education approved the grant during its March 25 meeting.

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The money will fund two eight-week tutoring programs in the fall and spring for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years. The district is also planning to use the money to fund summer school, with plans to double enrollment for this year to combat learning loss due to the pandemic.

“We want to make sure we can do as much as possible to get students to where they could have been,” Walker said. “Some of this is going to take time for us to figure out, too. Challenges we’re going to see with students may not be immediately resolved in the summer. I don’t expect the recovery process to be only one summer.”

Walker also said schools will use the money to conduct assessments on students with Individualized Education Plans to understand the impact of virtual learning on their academic performance and behavioral skills.

With the district continuing to roll out its hybrid learning model and the plan for a return to normal schooling in the fall, a small amount of the grant also will go toward personal protective equipment for educators and students.

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Of the $13 million the district received last summer, approximately $11 million went toward buying Chromebook laptops when the system didn’t have nearly enough devices for its 58,000 students. About $2 million went toward tutoring, which Walker said helped set the groundwork for the programs that will be funded by the ESSER II fund.

The money from the fund is available through Sept. 30, 2023.

A third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, from the American Rescue Plan Act passed and signed into law last month, is expected to be available for the district later this year, and Walker said the system is expecting to get around $43 million.

The school system is also expecting around $1 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief II Fund, which will be available through September 2023 as well.

This money is for the “development of digital resources and educational opportunities,” wrote Walker in an informational document provided to the board. The funding will be used for online instructional resources and expanding the system’s plan for a Digital Education Center, which is projected for implementation if the district is given enough money by County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council in the budget process.

The board’s $960.2 million spending plan — which requests $670.4 million from the county on top of the projected $289.8 million from the state and federal government — asks for $50.1 million more from the county government than the school system received last fiscal year. The 8% increase in requested funding from the county, if approved, would be the largest single-year increase since fiscal 2008.

Also during the March 25 meeting, board members discussed their priorities for the fall semester as the school system begins planning for the 2021-22 academic year. Most members said five-day-a-week, in-person learning was vital to them, as did schools Superintendent Michael Martirano.

“In my view, the return to normalized, five-day, in-person learning this fall is not only desirable but absolutely essential for the majority of our students,” Martirano said.

Some asked for a return to the seven-period schedule at middle and high schools as opposed to the current 4x4 model with four classes per semester. Other members, including student member Zach Koung and Vice Chair Jen Mallo, said they want the district to consider pushing back high school start times.

Also during the meeting:

  • The board unanimously approved a $1.5 million grant from the Maryland Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Plan to replace 16 diesel-powered work trucks with more eco-friendly models.
  • Beginning March 29, high school extracurricular activities, like music, theater and dance, started rolling out. Some on the board, including Koung, had pushed for them to start once high school sports began in mid-February.
  • Martirano announced that 99% of the 9,300 school system staff members who wanted the COVID-19 vaccine have received at least one shot.

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