See how your district spent COVID $$

Kathryn Robinson, a behavioral health school educator at Bellevue Elementary School, prepares her “chill room” for a lesson. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Allegheny County school districts are using $420 million in federal COVID relief to try to get back to normal

by Oliver Morrison, PublicSource

Caroline Johns, the superintendent of Northgate School District, saw a presentation about a new behavioral support program back in 2019.

The program, called The Chill Project, is run by The Allegheny Health Network, and is premised on the idea that early life traumas can lead to long-term chronic health problems. So intervening early, in schools, can help improve health outcomes in adults.

Johns was excited. But Northgate didn’t have the money for the program. Then, after the pandemic struck, Congress passed three rounds of funding to help school districts across the country recover. That amounted to $190 billion of support, the largest single federal infusion into schools ever, including more than $420 million for public schools in Allegheny County. Some districts have begun reporting challenges in spending some of the money as they struggle to hire additional staff.

With that new funding, Johns committed $800,000 to the Chill Project over four years. It was the largest commitment of relief dollars of any district in the county to additional mental health resources from the first two rounds of funding despite Northgate being one of the smallest districts. Now each of the four schools in the district has its own full-time behavior specialist and its own licensed clinician.

The behavior specialists teach lessons on mindfulness, stress reduction and emotional regulation in a special “Chill Room” where kids can drop in. The number of kids receiving counseling has increased from 20 or 30 before the pandemic to 60 or 70 now, Johns said.

Like many districts, Northgate saw mental health challenges when students returned to school after a long hiatus. But it hasn’t persisted, Johns said. “We’ve seen that really settle down. And I would attribute that to the supports we put in place.”

This is the kind of outcome that lawmakers had in mind when they passed the additional funding for schools: help students recover from additional challenges posed by the pandemic. The choices Johns and other district leaders across Allegheny County are making with their COVID relief funds could have a big impact on students and the future of the region. Education researchers estimate that the learning loss during the pandemic could cost the country more than $3 trillion in lost productivity over the next three decades if nothing is done to catch students up.

While districts have set distinct priorities, there are some common themes. Most districts have been spending the early funds on some combination of laptops and iPads for students and teachers, extra learning over the summer and after school, additional staff and repairs to HVAC equipment. The next few years could be a massive experiment in the effectiveness of additional funding if some districts are able to recover more quickly than others.

Johns said she thinks some districts may not do as well if they don’t invest in professional health staff.

“A lot of districts are trying to put in social-emotional learning and teachers are having to pick that up,” she said. “That’s admirable, but having trained professionals right on site is the more optimal way to go.”

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