How CCS plans to spend its $17.4 million of expected COVID-19 relief allotments

Posted 5/12/21

Chatham County Schools submitted its application for its second and third rounds of COVID-19 relief funds — totaling about $17.4 million — to the state last week, the district said during …

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How CCS plans to spend its $17.4 million of expected COVID-19 relief allotments

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Posted

Chatham County Schools submitted its application for its second and third rounds of COVID-19 relief funds — totaling about $17.4 million — to the state last week, the district said during Monday’s board of education meeting.

Over the course of the pandemic, CCS has received a total allotment of about $18.8 million as part of North Carolina’s Elementary & Secondary School (K-12) Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), to be received and spent over the next few years. The school system received nearly $1.4 million last year as a part of the CARES Act, and most of that funding went toward buying things to implement its COVID-19 safety protocol: cleaning sanitizer, signage, personal protective equipment and more. Any remaining balance is budgeted for salaries, the district said, to be spent by the end of 2022.

“This pot of money is a little bit more flexible,” said Amanda Hartness, CCS assistant superintendent of academic services and instructional support, at Monday’s meeting.

As part of December’s federal relief act (CRRSA), CCS was allotted $5.4 million, with $12 million most recently allotted through the American Rescue Plan Act, passed March 11. Both applications were due May 7 and opened during the first two weeks of April.

“It’s been a quick turnaround,” Hartness said, “(with) many complexities and layers, but we feel really proud of what we’ve put together thus far.”

Twenty percent of the ARP funding must go toward mitigating learning loss, the district said, or $2.4 million. The remaining funding — from rounds two and three of funding — can be used to respond to COVID-19, prevent COVID-19 and reduce the spread of the virus, the district said during its presentation to the board. Some examples of such allowable uses include facility repairs/improvements to minimize virus transmission, long-term closure activities and mental health services.

“When Dr. Hartness mentioned flexibility, in terms of a federal program, (this is) the most flexible pot of money I think I’ve ever dealt with,” Carrie Little, Executive Director of Federal Programs and School Improvement, told the board. “So we’re very fortunate.”

The second round of funding, ESSER II, must be allocated by Sept. 30, 2023, to be spent by the end of that year, while ESSER III must last until Sept. 30, 2024. School districts are expected to use some of their ESSER II funding for this year’s summer learning costs. Last month, state legislature passed a law requiring school districts to offer students at least 150 hours or 30 days of summer in-person instruction, along with a minimum of one enrichment activity during each instructional day, with the goal of mitigating learning loss caused by the pandemic.

Following surveying of principles and other administrators, as well as a review of academic data, the district identified the following academic areas of need: achievement and opportunity gaps, English-Language Learner student progress, Math I and middle school and 9th grade ELA. The potential funding areas included extended learning opportunities, investing in human capital, health and safety (such as HVAC systems and PPE) and professional development.

“And then of course, COVID learning losses just across the board will be something we’ll have to focus on,” Hartness said.

The district primarily presented buckets that funding could be used for rather than proposing individual line-item expenses.

“The purpose of this evening was to kind of give you an overview of the process and what kind of the big areas are,” Hartness told the board, “but we certainly in future meetings can share additional information.”

“It’s a nice problem to have trying to figure out how to spend money,” board Chairperson Gary Leonard said. “I know you’ll work with our schools to put it to the best benefit of our students.”

Other meeting business

Prior to last night’s meeting, the last day of the 2020-21 academic year was an early release day on Wednesday, June 9. The board voted to move the last day of the school year to a full day on Tuesday, June 8 so that students learning under Plan A can finish school in-person rather than remotely on the asynchronous Wednesday planning day. June 9 will now be a required teacher workday.

The board heard an update from Forthright Advising, a Raleigh public relations firm that the district began working with earlier this year to “ensure that (CCS) communications with stakeholders are impactful and productive.”

Forthright has so far commissioned a communications audit, looked specifically at COVID-19 communications and surveyed parents about communications. Katie Test Davis, Forthright founder, said 82% of parents who responded said they had a clear understanding of district COVID-19 changes. Board members Melissa Hlavac and Jane Allen Wilson raised questions about who answered the survey and how it was administered, expressing concerns that the survey might not have reached parents without reliable internet access.

Forthright recommended the district send out a “post-COVID” monthly newsletter, emphasize school-based communication and use email, robocalls and social media to “meet parents where they are.”

The board heard a brief update on Chatham Park North, a 7,100-acre mixed-use development expected to add over 20,000 homes to Pittsboro over the next three decades, with the homeside access across from Northwood High School expected to be complete in 2025. An August vote by the BOE splits Chatham Park students between Northwood and Seaforth High School, the district’s new high school set to open next fall.

The board also approved a $128,362 request to purchase band instruments to support the middle and high school band programs, a $150,000 request to invest in E-Book Sora platform along with granting district administration to purchase Chromebooks and network with the E-Rate recovery funds once received.

The meeting concluded with a presentation on proposed county funds spending plan, presented by Superintendent for Operations Chris Blice, which the board approved.

The school system has an estimated $10 million earmarked from the county, due to a surplus of Chatham county borrowing, to be used on school projects included in the Chatham County Capital Improvements Projects Plan.

Blice presented an attachment showing the funds allocated to be used to address construction needs at Chatham Grove Elementary and Seaforth High schools, anticipated capacity issues at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, athletic lighting needs at Chatham Central, Jordan-Matthews, and Northwood High schools, and paving/LED lighting upgrades at numerous schools across the district. He stressed that the actual amounts listed per project are estimates and will likely be adjusted.

“The proposed spending plan is an opportunity,” Blice said, “and I would quite frankly call it a once in a lifetime kind of thing.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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