COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.
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Oklahoma schools received nearly $145 million for PK-12 schools through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief Fund. Gov. Stitt will also receive approximately $38 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to spend on significantly impacted school districts or higher education institutions. This funding is a response to the additional costs schools have incurred transitioning to distance learning and state budget cuts in the wake of COVID-19.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education will distribute the $145 million to Oklahoma public schools based on how much districts receive in Title I funding, which are federal dollars schools receive to provide additional support to students who are economically disadvantaged. States that accept these funds must maintain support for common education equal to the average funding appropriated the three preceding years. Schools must also continue to pay their employees during the current year’s school closures due to the coronavirus.
While schools have some latitude in how to use this additional funding it must fall within 12 allowable categories aimed at helping schools respond to student needs during the pandemic. These activities include addressing the unique needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, children of color, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth along with professional development for staff, purchasing technological equipment for distance learning, and providing mental health services for students.
Funds should focus on easing COVID-19 slide for low-income students and students of color
Using models to calculate the amount of loss students experience during the “summer slide,” researchers predict that on average students will return from COVID-19 school closures in fall 2020 with roughly 70 percent of the learning gains in reading when compared to a typical full length school year. Losses will be greater in math where the COVID-19 slide estimates predict that students will return with less than 50 percent of learning gains.
Missing a quarter of the school year will impact all students, but low-income students, students of color, English language learners, homeless students and foster care youth are likely to slide more steeply than others. In Oklahoma, this amounts to well over half of all students. Approximately 60 percent of all Oklahoma school children are economically disadvantaged, and just over 50 percent are students of color. Low-income students already score lower on average on standardized tests than their higher income peers and have less access to technology and resources needed to maintain learning during school closures. Students in the early elementary grades, where they learn important fundamental skills, also will likely see the most significant learning losses.
Invest in equity-focused academic supports
To mitigate slide inequalities caused by pandemic-related school closures, districts should use federal stimulus money to ensure all students have access to digital devices and internet connectivity. Additionally, teachers, school counselors, and support staff need research-based professional development to effectively shift their lessons to distant learning and ensure high-quality learning through technology. Schools must ensure that students immediate distance learning needs are met along with preparing for possible school closures this fall.
Schools should also use funding from the CARES Act to invest in proven techniques to address academic disparities. This includes increasing learning time through summer school or lengthening the school year, as well as reducing student-to-teacher ratios to ensure students get the individualized attention they need. Reducing class sizes, hiring additional support staff to work with students in small groups, and investing in tutoring programs can all help mitigate learning loss.
Increase attention to mental health and essential needs
Funding should also be used to address students’ social and emotional needs by increasing access to mental health professionals and developing surveys to assess student mental health during and immediately after the crisis. Families are experiencing heightened stress during this time and it is vital that schools help students identify their struggles and access mental health support.
Additionally, all families — and especially those already struggling — are likely to face more difficult circumstances due to job losses and unstable housing. Schools should be assessing students’ mental health needs while leveraging funding to identify and connect families with essential needs such as food, clothing, health care, and other social services.
Schools will need even more support
While funding from the Education Stabilization Fund will help schools weather some needs, schools will need far more support during the next year. Before this crisis, state aid for Oklahoma public schools still had not fully recovered from cuts made over a decade ago during the Great Recession. Now schools may have to cut their budgets yet again during the next school year. In light of this new economic reality, it was disappointing to hear that Gov. Stitt may consider using some of the almost $40 million he will receive for education relief on the opportunity scholarship tax credit program. As we have written about in the past, this program funnels tax revenue to private schools, and does little to help ensure equal education for all students. Instead, additional federal dollars should be used to support low-income students through extended instructional time, lower student-to-staff ratios, and other initiatives. Such investments will prevent the COVID-19 slide from widening academic disparities even further.