On its face, it’s unprecedented and needed money that some say should be easy enough to spend: Congress over the past two years has authorized more than $263 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding to the nation’s schools and colleges — including nearly $950 million to Hawaii — and educators are supposed to use the money to keep students healthy and safe, and help them recover from the pandemic’s learning losses and social-emotional wounds.
But spending the funds and bringing meaningful support to Hawaii’s public school students is taking longer than some think it should, hindered by red tape, political and economic tugs of war, hiring shortages and other complications.
And that’s frustrating many teachers and parents who say more support for struggling students is needed right this minute.
The state Department of Education is getting the lion’s share of Hawaii’s Education Stabilization Fund allotment, but according to federal data, it has so far spent only 27.1% of its $639.5 million total in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, also known as ESSER.
The money comes with use-it-or-lose-it deadlines: The first round of ESSER money, $43.4 million, must be spent by Sept. 30. The $183.6 million in the ESSER II appropriation expires in September 2023 and the $412.5 million in ESSER III runs out in September 2024.
“My concern is … as a teacher and as a parent, we have not seen at the school level any difference (academically) since the ESSER funds were approved for schools to use,” Lisa Morrison, an arts and communications teacher at Maui High School and secretary-treasurer for the Hawaii State Teachers Association, testified at an April 21 joint meeting of the state Board of Education’s Student Achievement and Finance and Infrastructure committees.
While the schools early in the pandemic received aid mainly in health and safety and virtual-learning efforts, Morrison said that today at her school, “in terms of academics, there’s been no change. We’re not getting any tutoring services. We’re not getting any extra support.”
Osa Tui Jr., president of the 13,500-member union representing Hawaii’s public school teachers, echoes Morrison’s concerns. “Teachers are saying they don’t see the impacts on the ground,” he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Tui said he was astonished to learn that less than half of the schools in one Oahu school complex have applied for discretionary COVID-19 aid. He suspects some are overwhelmed by the red tape.
“Maybe it is just too onerous, maybe it’s that things have been denied, I don’t know,” he said. “Just hearing that statistic was a little shocking.”
Similar delays are plaguing many mainland school districts. A sampling of K-12 schools across the country by the education data-tracking site Burbio found they had spent only 0.5% to 15% of their ESSER III funds in the one year since that biggest round of emergency aid for education was approved by Congress in March 2021.
Some mainland community groups are calling for the feds to extend the deadline.
Educators agree that the need to provide academic support at the classroom level for Hawaii’s 171,000 public school students is immediate and urgent.
In the second quarter of this school year, for instance, DOE data showed 52.9% of elementary students and 61.3% of middle school students tested at one grade or more below their grade level in English. And in math, 60.5% of elementary students and 62.3% of middle school students tested at one grade or more below their grade level. The rest tested at grade level or above.
Percentages of students earning a failing grade in math or English rose slightly among most Hawaii public school students in the second quarter, which coincided with stretches of the surges in the delta and omicron variants of COVID-19. Elementary school students fared the worst, with 22% with a failing grade in English and 16% failing math.
At the end of the second quarter of this school year, 31% of all students and 40% of high-needs students were still at risk of being chronically absent, and 16% of all students were “off track” in their progress toward graduation, according to DOE data.
Just as concerning are the social and emotional “trauma” and developmental delays that students have suffered due to pandemic isolation and stressors, state schools interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi and other educators have said repeatedly.
The prevalence of depression and anxiety has doubled during the pandemic, according to a statement this week from the state Department of Health. In 2020, 11,000 of Hawaii’s young people experienced at least one major depressive episode, DOH said.
So with such pressing problems, why are educators reporting delays in getting more academic and social-emotional support at the student level?
Money spent earlier in the pandemic from the first two “buckets” of COVID-19 aid to Hawaii public schools, ESSER I and ESSER II, necessarily went largely to the pressing needs of that time, such as personal protective equipment and additional laptops needed for virtual learning, said Jill Tokuda, a former chair of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Tokuda, who is running for the congressional seat held by U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, was co-chair of a legislative committee monitoring Hawaii’s COVID-19 funds.
Brian Hallet, the DOE’s chief financial officer and assistant superintendent for the Office of Fiscal Services, said in a statement to the Star-Advertiser that the federal relief funds earlier in the pandemic “allowed the department to respond to the impacts of COVID during a time when the state’s ability to support public schools along with other competing interests was in flux.
“The federal ESSER funds supported student-focused responses including the rollout of digital devices and connectivity, online content and meal programs. It also allowed the department to continue to meet its obligations to its staff — we have not had to lay off employees during the pandemic — and vendors.”
Meanwhile, the reasons that only a sliver has been spent so far from the third and largest wave of money, the $412 million in ESSER III funds, appear complex and multifold.
While the ESSER III money was authorized over a year ago, in March 2021, it took until August for an initial Hawaii plan to be approved and the federal money awarded. Some of that delay was connected to the approximately $120 million lump-sum funding cut the DOE took in the 2021 legislative session due to the pandemic-related economic downturn; the feds require school education agencies to show that state support is being maintained.
Confusion over who ought to direct the spending also slowed the money’s use. In the 2021 Legislature, state lawmakers tried to dictate how ESSER funds should be spent, but that was vetoed by the governor after federal officials indicated that educational agencies such as the state DOE should steer.
The BOE and DOE have since taken the lead to develop and implement an ESSER educational plan. But the complicated task has taken both into uncharted territory. The DOE’s initial proposal was debated and underwent several revisions before it was finally approved by the board Dec. 16.
A statewide strategy
Now that this year’s Legislature appears set to restore the DOE budget, more school progress is already being made, Hallet said.
“As the state transitions away from emergency response and the overall economy is stabilizing, our schools and educational professionals are focusing their attention even more on evaluating students and addressing their social-emotional and learning loss needs,” he said.
The DOE’s plan has four systemwide strategies, titled: Healthy Habits, Healthy Schools; Action-Oriented Data Decision-Making; Responsive Capacity Building; and Effective Academic Practices. The department is required to provide the BOE with a monthly expenditure report, a quarterly educational metrics report and a narrative, all of which can be viewed online by the public.
About $53 million is approved for discretionary spending this year by the DOE school complexes, and the same amount is expected for the next two years.
In an April meeting of the board’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee, several complex superintendents presented examples of plans customized for their communities. As for the statewide strategy, Hayashi said in a draft report to the committee that highlights include:
>> 107 health-support staff hired to meet pandemic-related needs.
>> Refinement and expansion of the state distance-learning program.
>> Statewide assessment to determine the social and emotional needs of students and staff.
>> Improved access to counselors during the summer and online.
>> A more robust summer program.
>> Professional development “to help teachers, administrators and support staff address student needs, including trauma-informed care, early literacy and engagement.”
The long haul
Still, the head of the teachers union says these steps are a useful start, but they’re not aggressive or fast enough.
“The superintendent is ultimately responsible” for the slow rollout, Tui said. Star-Advertiser requests for an interview with Hayashi were not granted by the DOE.
Tui added that he believes the most impactful use of the federal funds now would be to invest in cutting down class sizes by recruiting and retaining more teachers.
But the chronic teacher shortage can’t be fixed tomorrow, so stronger steps are needed to strengthen the pipeline, he said, “because how do you give students the individualized instruction they need when you have to deal with 35 students?”
For students to get the care needed to recover quickly from the pandemic, Tui said, class sizes should be closer to 20.
Morrison, the Maui High teacher, agrees that adding qualified teachers, tutors and counselors would have the biggest immediate impact on accelerating learning.
“Right now it is just overwhelming, the needs that these kids have,” she said, pausing. “They’re struggling. Until kids have their emotional needs met, they are not making academic strides.”
Cheri Nakamura, director of the nonprofit advocacy group HE‘E Coalition, has studied ESSER plans in other cities, including Houston and Los Angeles, and agrees that Hawaii’s implementation has been slow and needs more transparency.
“We would like to see the money get down to the schools as soon as possible,” she said. “We would like to have clarity on what the monies are being spent on … and be able to have confidence that it’s making an impact, especially for our high-needs students.”
Tokuda likened the windfall of ESSER funds to “drinking out of a fire hose.” The state has to strike a balance between meeting students’ urgent needs today while using the extended spending deadlines to plan well for several years out, she said.
“As a parent, I will never feel it’s going fast enough,” said Tokuda, whose two sons attend Windward Oahu public schools. “But we have to remind people this is supposed to be for the long haul.”
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