While children in Williamson County spent the last several weeks enjoying their vacations, state and local officials spent their summers working to ensure students return to classes with a plan to make up for time lost to the coronavirus pandemic.

On July 15, the U.S. Department of Education announced it has approved $830 million in funding for Tennessee public schools as part of round three of the American Rescue Plan Act and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. The funding program, more commonly known as ESSER, allocates dollars to each state to be divided among counties.

In Williamson County, Franklin Special School District and Williamson County Schools are slated to receive $2.9 million and $5.2 million, respectively, in the latest round of funding distributed by the Tennessee Department of Education. Those totals are in addition to previous ESSER rounds that awarded $2.8 million to WCS and $1.7 million to FSSD.

Each district will be able to use those allocations to fund initiatives for literacy, learning interventions and additional tutoring. Earlier this summer, FSSD sent out a survey asking parents what programs their children could benefit from to help guide spending decisions.

“The FSSD’s plans about how to use these federal [ESSER] funds were crafted with both educator and parent input, and are tailored to the specific needs of students and schools within the district,” FSSD board Chair Robert Blair said.

Funding process

While the latest round of funding includes more money than previous allocations, both FSSD and WCS are receiving less than nearby districts. Metro Nashville Public Schools is slated to receive a total of more than $425 million; Maury County Schools is expected to get $26.4 million; and Rutherford County Schools could receive more than $67.6 million.

WCS officials said there are a number of reasons—such as enrollment numbers—why Williamson County districts are not receiving as much funding. According to the TDOE, MNPS had more than 85,500 students enrolled in 2020, which was more than twice the number of students enrolled in WCS.

Additionally, the state also considers the needs of each district based on the percent of economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and students who can benefit from other supports and interventions, according to the TDOE.

In Williamson County, less than 3% of students at WCS and just under 14% of students at FSSD were economically disadvantaged as of 2020, according to the TDOE. Those numbers are lower than many surrounding school districts like MNPS, which reported 38.3% of students are economically disadvantaged.

“Allocations vary depending on many factors, but socioeconomics is a key component,” WCS Communications Director Carol Birdsong said in an email.

In addition to having fewer economically disadvantaged and disabled students than the state average, local officials said Williamson County school districts were also able to stay open through most of the 2020-21 school year, which they hope lessened the effects of learning loss.

“The impacts of COVID-19 on education will likely be felt for several years in the forms of academic growth and students’ social-emotional well-being,” Blair said. “That being said, the Franklin Special School District was extremely fortunate to have been able to provide a majority of our students with in-person instruction last year, mitigating some of those impacts.”

However, before the funding can be officially awarded, each district must assemble a plan on how the money will be spent in schools and meet certain spending requirements set by the state. Additionally, because they are one-time funds, local districts must be mindful about using them for nonrecurring costs.

“Leadership is currently working on the plan for how we are going to spend the last round of funding,” Birdsong said. “The greatest needs from the federal, state and local levels do seem to all be geared towards learning loss as well as the physical and mental health of our students.”

District priorities

FSSD Federal Programs Supervisor Pax Wiemers said while the district is still finalizing its plan, there are several initiatives it hopes to fund during this school year, including additional school buses, technology and infrastructure upgrades, and professional learning programs for teachers and staff.

However, while each district has different plans for spending its individual allocations, Wiemers said there are some spending categories that are mandatory for public schools as part of the ESSER program.

“A major requirement is that 20% of the total funding has to be used for mitigating students’ learning loss,” Wiemers said.

Learning loss, or academic losses due to lost instructional time, is a key priority at the state and federal level. In particular, officials are looking to help students catch up in areas such as literacy, according to the TDOE. In addition to ESSER funding, the state has also received federal and state funding to help pay for literacy initiatives such as Reading360, which is intended to boost literacy for younger students.

“In Tennessee, we are maximizing over $4 billion in K-12 funding to provide all students with essential academic supports like statewide tutoring and early reading resources, and to strengthen programs that support student readiness and our educators,” TDOE Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a July 15 release.

Locally, Wiemers said FSSD hopes to fund programs, such as adding a phonics program for kindergarten through second grade, adding a paraprofessional at each campus to focus solely on learning loss, adding an accelerated learning specialist for kindergarten through second grade and adding a math intervention program.

“The funding we have proposed include supports, such as extra paraprofessionals dedicated to intervention, free after-school tutoring, extra resources for fine arts, [science, technology, engineering and math], and enrichment,” Blair said. “These categories, which were also at the top of our parents’ list based on survey results, will provide FSSD students and teachers with the support they need following such a challenging year for everyone.”

WCS is looking to make more social workers available to schools to help with mental health support in addition to bringing in learning interventionists to address learning loss.

Each district in Tennessee is required to submit finalized spending plans to the TDOE by Aug. 27.