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Hundreds of millions of federal relief funds pour into Mahoning schools

Three rounds of federal relief dollars are giving Mahoning County school districts more opportunities to address students’ academic needs in cleaner, safer buildings with updated technology.

With Ohio schools being awarded $4.47 billion in American Recovery Act funds, area public school leaders are now trying to figure out the best ways to use this money over the next three years — to get students back on track with learning and strengthen their districts.

In this latest round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, there will be an estimated $6.88 billion released since the schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic last March.

Some districts, including Youngstown, only reopened to in-person school learning last month. Other districts instituted hybrid models of instruction where students were taught online for two or more days a week and attended in-person school hours on alternatives days.

Many districts returned to five-day-a-week classes in buildings at the beginning of the fall quarter.

Area school leaders said their primary goals will be to keep students and employees safe and to reverse possible learning losses by providing extra classes this summer, into the next school year, and possibly next summer.

To obtain their allocated share of the money, districts must apply for reimbursement to the Ohio Department of Education for approval under established rules.

Schools have until Sept. 20, 2022, to use their allocations of the ESSER I funds; until Sept. 20, 2023, to use ESSER II; and Sept. 20, 2024, for ESSER III.

Here are some examples of how these dollars will be put to use locally.

FOR NOW AND BEYOND

Like most other districts, Boardman Treasurer Terry Armstrong said Boardman used the majority of its ESSER I and is expected to use its ESSER II funds to purchase cleaning and sanitation supplies, personal protective equipment and some electronic equipment to help student learning.

“We also provided extra hours for transportation due to changes in routes and bus configurations,” he said. “Some ESSER II funds will also be utilized for a robust summer program and integrating increased academic assistance during the next school year and beyond.”

Boardman Superintendent Tim Saxton said the district is discussing combining some of its ESSER II and III funds to address air quality concerns in some of its six buildings.

To address possible learning gaps, Saxton said the district is encouraging students to take advantage of free summer school being made available because of the ESSER II money.

“We will be providing transportation, free breakfasts and lunches,” Saxton said. “We’ve already placed study tables in our buildings.”

Some of the funds will be used to increase security, including replacing doors on the buildings, as well as adding cameras and radios on school buses.

Boardman also is looking to use some of the funds to add water bottle systems in the buildings and expand outdoor seating to provide more space for students.

FUTURE BUDGETS

“We were already discussing some of these before the pandemic, but did not have the funds,” Saxton said.”We don’t want to add anything that will create a legacy cost to future budgets.”

The ESSER funds will allow the district to do some projects that would have taken 10 years to raise funds to do.

“We want to add some individualized learning plans for students that may have struggled over the last year,” Saxton said. “It was not all students, but some had a more difficult time learning online. We’ve added staff and programs.”

Austintown Treasurer Blaise Karlovic described the district as primarily using the $736,337 in ESSER I funds to make sure the district’s buildings have been cleaned and sanitized, PPE equipment purchased, as well as purchsing the necessary equipment to retain some custodial employees to do extra cleaning around the building.

STAFFING

“We were in the process of reducing staff due to in-person learning ending last March,” Karlovic said. “These funds enabled us to retain them, so they have been able to keep the buildings clean.”

Karlovic said the district has not used all of its ESSER I funds, but expects to expend them before the end of the calendar year.

“We using the $2.3 million of ESSER II funds to address the needs of student populations needing intervention through afterschool programs, ELS services, summer school and enrichmentand credit recovery programs.”

The district will not use the ESSER II funds to upgrade building air filtration systems, like some districts, because they found these systems can increase energy cost by 40 to 50 percent per year. It is purchasing individual units for some rooms.

“This has been an opportunity for the district to upgrade technologies and programs for our students,” he said. “We are able to close what gaps that may have developed during the time students were being taught online and address any mental health needs.”

UPGRADES

Karlovic said the district plans to use some of the funds to pay for educational curriculum upgrades already being discussing before pandemic, such as providing more English as a second language courses in each of the buildings.

“It already was become more needed,” he said. “These kinds of educational programs fall within the guidelines of ESSER II.”.

The district is planning to focus on curriculum and student improvement with the $6.5 million in ESSER III funds announce last week.

Poland schools Treasurer Janet Muntean said the district is using the $130,000 it received in the first round to buy intergrated whiteboards for teachers, temperature scanners and electrostatic sprayers.

“All of the $497,359 that has been allocated in ESSER II will be used to replace the heating and air conditioning system in one of our buildings,” Muntean said. “The total cost of the HVAC replacement is just under $1 million, so it will take all of these funds and more.”

In addition to the PPE, Canfield schools used the $164, 248 it was allocated in ESSER I funds for tutors, additional custodial help, technology, and intervention specialist aides, according to spokeswoman Renee English. The $617,219 it has been allocated in ESSER II funds primarily will be used for remote learning, staff salaries and benefits.

ENRICHMENT

The Youngstown school district is working to determine how to spend $50 million it is being allocated with the third round of ESSER funds. Youngstown has the highest amount of third-round funds available to it in Trumbull and Mahoning counties, followed by Warren at $30,772,474, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

The Youngstown district was awarded more than $27 million through the first two rounds.

The majority of the first round, $5.3 million, has been encumbered, if not spent, for specific purposes.

The ESSER II funds, approximately $22.3 million, are being used, in part, to pay for the district’s summer’s enrichment program, as well as the purchase of buses and other equipment.

The Youngstown district has not determined how the third round of funding will be used.

rsmith@tribtoday.com

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