Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic added significantly to the challenges of managing public schools.
Already at a disadvantage compared to private peers, public schools were forced to quickly adapt to new learning models with a massive influx of funding support while also ensuring students' nutritional and other needs continued being met. As the nation advances out of the health crisis, K-12 now finds itself at a crossroads with perhaps its closest opportunity to hit "reset" and rethink school designs for the future.
But alongside that imperative, school leaders also face ongoing questions around disciplinary measures, diversifying teacher and leadership pipelines, making the best use of relief funding and more. To help you stay up to speed, K-12 Dive will keep this page up to date with school management trends and developments throughout the year. Here are some recent highlights from our coverage.
Data shows public schools faced greater disadvantages than private in 2020
By: Naaz Modan• Published Feb. 22, 2022
Public schools were at a disadvantage in many areas when compared to private schools during the first phase of coronavirus shutdowns, new nationally representative data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics shows.
While 58% of private school principals said their students could get internet service in spring 2020, only 4% of public school principals reported the same. Private school teachers were almost twice as likely (61% versus 32%) as public school teachers to say they had real-time interactions with a majority of their students.
Sixty-three percent of private school teachers reported real-time instruction that allowed students to ask questions through a video or audio call, compared to 47% of public school teachers. A slightly higher percentage of private schools used paper materials during distance learning than public schools (48% versus 41%).
Findings have shown the coronavirus pandemic and school shutdowns are disproportionately impacting students of color and lower-income students. However, data comparing how public schools fared versus their private counterparts is much more scarce.
The new data released by the department sheds light on the resources available to public schools and their students, as well as on employee experiences, when the pandemic first began.
“Students need equitable access to technological devices and a stable, reliable internet connection in order to participate in online learning,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr in a statement. “This report shows that many students at both public and private schools struggled with technology during the first phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
However, public schools were more likely to help students connect to the internet for the distance learning the pandemic required.
According to the report, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 23% of public school principals reported their schools assigned a computer or digital device for each student to take home, while 14% of private school principals said the same.
During the pandemic, public school principals again reported assigning computers or digital devices to all students to take home at a higher rate than private school principals (45% versus 20%). Public school principals were also much more likely to say they sent home hotspots or other devices to help students connect to the internet, at 61% versus 9% for private schools.
“Principals around the country took extraordinary measures to get their students online during the pandemic,” Carr said, calling the pandemic an “unprecedented time.”
Yet despite the work principals put in to get students connected, there were also disparities between the employee experiences of public and private school teachers: Private school teachers were more than twice as likely as those in public schools to strongly agree they had the support and resources they needed to be effective, at 37% and 17%, respectively.
The flight of public school teachers from the profession in light of the pandemic and resulting burnout has raised alarms over the past two years, especially considering a teacher shortage that existed prior to spring 2020.
In addition, recent controversy over what’s taught in the classroom — including proposals to monitor and report teachers for discussing banned topics — could drive more teachers out of the profession, experts worry, at a time when students need more academic interventions.
“We need more resources, not less, to meet the needs of our students,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, earlier this month.
Article top image credit: Andy Lyons via Getty Images
Cardona: Tomorrow's problems can't be solved with yesterday's designs
By: Roger Riddell• Published Feb. 18, 2022
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said education leaders must consider organizational innovation at the central office and school level, alongside programmatic innovation, during a fireside chat with AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech at the School Superintendents Association’s annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Don’t think we’re going to solve tomorrow’s problems with our school and district design of yesterday,” Cardona said, adding that districts must communicate with and engage families and communities in the process of determining how American Rescue Plan funds are spent.
Cardona said he strongly believes education spending in the next 10 years will be influenced by what people see happening in the next two years. “It’s really important that we think about that as we become innovative in our communication strategies and in our engagement with families on how to spend the money,” he said.
Cardona highlighted the challenges facing educators, which have been compounded by teacher shortages that existed even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While President Joe Biden’s budget includes a focus on teacher development, and ARP plans can also be used to help on this front, Cardona said the nation must prioritize paying teachers a decent salary. Teachers shouldn’t be working two to three jobs, a scenario he noted many found themselves in even before the pandemic.
Additionally, he cited a need for better working conditions — including an environment where teachers aren’t lifted as heroes in their communities one week and vilified the next. And they must be given better opportunities for professional learning and benefits like public service loan forgiveness, Cardona said.
Teacher voice is critical, Cardona added. They know what’s happening with students and what is impacting them. And just as students and their families have experienced traumas from the pandemic, he said, so too have teachers and administrators, creating a need for supports that consider the “whole educator.”
“No one signed up for leading in a pandemic, but we’re here. We did sign up to help students,” Cardona told attendees. “I can tell you that the work you’re going to do in the next two years is gonna be transformational for our country. This is the closest to a reset we have.”
In a follow-up conversation with K-12 Dive, Cardona reiterated the opportunities school and district leaders now have to communicate with families about what is being done to support their children with the unprecedented influx of education spending.
That means more thorough communication and engagement are needed around how decisions are being made, he said. “We're seeing across the country that people feel very strongly about certain topics. So it's incumbent upon us as educators to think about how we're engaging our families, even those who disagree with some of the policies, so they understand some of the rationale.”
Among ARP-supported programs that have stuck out to him have been a community partnership in Camden, New Jersey, where the local Boys & Girls Club is working with the district to provide students with after-school support, recreational activities, mentorship and other opportunities.
“As a father, my children are in high school, and their success matters to me. And because of what happened over the last two years, I want to know more,” Cardona said. “School and district leaders understand that this next chapter of education can't look like what it looked like in March 2020.”
Finally, Cardona suggested districts could create parent academies that help families better understand the role of schools and what’s happening in them, as well as to provide opportunities for parents to level-up their own skills.
“Education unites,” Cardona said. “And I'm really confident in these leaders, who've gone through the fire, that they're the ones that are gonna lead us out of this and bring education to a place it's never been."
Article top image credit: Roger Riddell/K-12 Dive
Diversifying, expanding the assistant principalship key to repairing leadership pipelines
Despite impacts on culture and outcomes, those in the role continue to face barriers, experts said during a session at AASA’s national conference.
By: Roger Riddell• Published Feb. 18, 2022
Education leaders convened in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss the impact assistant principals can have on building and diversifying education leadership pipelines in a Thursday morning session at the National Conference on Education, held by AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
According to a “2022 Voice of the Superintendent Survey” released Thursday by education company EAB, nearly half of district leaders say they are considering or planning to leave their job in the next two to three years.
“We know, today, the issues superintendents are facing with staffing and the concern we have with what is, in essence, a diminishing pipeline,” AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech told attendees. “A very important part of that pipeline process, obviously, are assistant principals.”
“This has a particularly negative impact on schools that serve the poor, the vulnerable and students of color,” said Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We have a fractured principal pipeline right now.”
But capitalizing on the potential of assistant principals and building pipelines to top roles requires clearly defining what that role can be and focusing resources on building intentional pathways.
More research is needed to understand exactly why that boom occurred, said Ellen Goldring, professor of educational policy and leadership at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and a co-author of the report.
Additionally, the number of principals who have assistant principal experience has also increased, from about half to more than three quarters of current principals.
Assistant principals are more common in city and suburban schools, and schools that have higher percentages of assistant principals also tend to have higher percentages of students of color. Nearly 70% of secondary schools have assistant principals, compared to about half of elementary schools.
For instance, the average percentage of Latinx students and Black students in schools with assistant principals was 25% and 19%, respectively, compared to 19% and 11% in schools without assistant principals. Conversely, the average percentage of White students in schools with assistant principals was 47%, versus 61% in schools without the role.
The Wallace Foundation report also cites studies of administrative data across six states — Florida, Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — showing assistant principals are more likely to be people of color than are principals or teachers.
This, Goldring said, raises the question of whether educators of color have to take an extra step on the way to a principalship not required of their White peers.
It additionally highlights other barriers educators of color face on leadership pathways. Along with lack of access to mentorship, especially for women of color, and discrimination in the schools they’re placed at, educators of color who take on assistant principal roles also tend to be assigned different leadership tasks.
Frequently, this takes the form of Black and brown educators being pulled into these positions to essentially serve as disciplinarians of students of color.
“I implore us to stop doing this, to create these Black and brown men who are disciplinarians,” said Contreras. “All we’re really doing is asking them to come manage Black and brown bodies. It’s unfair. It’s unfair to the rest of the teachers in the building who should be honing their own skills in how to build relationships with all children so we don’t build these cultures of disciplinarians.”
This is part of the reason for the increase in assistant principals, rather than a desire to boost instructional leadership, Contreras said, adding it’s a culture that must be broken because the current model continues to force assistant principals into roles as disciplinarians or building managers and not much more.
Women also remain underrepresented among both assistant principals and principals, accounting for 52% of both roles, relative to their proportion among teachers (77%). Women face barriers into leadership that include mentorship opportunities, assigned tasks, family responsibilities, differences in aspirations or confidence, and discrimination, according to the Wallace Foundation report.
How districts can improve pipelines
While research suggests more of assistant principals’ time is spent providing instructional leadership, not all are getting leadership roles and responsibilities that best prepare them for the principalship, and there’s no research on how tasks are assigned to these roles or why the role varies, Goldring said.
While there are no unique professional standards for assistant principals, there are specific tasks associated with the role that improve school climate and student outcomes, she said.
These include coaching teachers, being visible in the classroom, and attending to cultural inclusivity. There are still many knowledge gaps to fill to inform policy and practice, Goldring said, but there are steps districts can take to improve access and equity, remove barriers, and better prepare assistant principals with operational and instructional leadership skills they’ll need to be principals.
To identify and address barriers to advancement for educators of color and women, the Wallace Foundation report suggested districts can:
Conduct equity audits to help identify and remove barriers to advancement.
Examine who is receiving mentoring and professional development, and who is being tapped for advancement.
Collect and analyze data by race and gender.
To ensure assistant principals are being prepared to lead schools:
Adapt standards and leadership tasks consistent with the role’s function as a stepping stone to principalship.
Create assistant principal evaluations appropriate to the role.
Ensure principals have the skills to mentor assistant principals and equitably delegate tasks to develop their leadership skills.
What this looks like in practice
Guilford County has taken steps on this front by creating both an Assistant Principals Leadership Academy, in partnership with New Leaders, a nonprofit focused on helping to prepare education leaders, and a Guilford Aspiring Leaders Academy.
Guilford’s APLA is focused on ensuring assistant principals are equipped with the knowledge, skills and resources to build capacity and provide support to prepare them for the principalship, Contreras said.
The goal is to create a collective culture of equity, efficacy and cultural competencies that drive student achievement, while building a sustainable talent pipeline to advance a culture of high performance and deeper learning, Contreras said.
GALA, on the other hand, focuses on creating transformational leaders to address inequity and systemic racism, and on building a strong pipeline for leaders of color, she said.
“We need to make sure we are placing Black and brown administrators across the board in schools across districts, irrespective of the demographics of that school, so they have these various experiences,” said Contreras. “And when they are struggling in low-performing schools that have, over time, not received the sort of support and funding they need, we stand by these administrators and provide them all the support they need.”
That includes making sure assistant principals are fully prepared to deal with the situations they’re going into, she said.
Greenville County Schools in Greenville, South Carolina, has developed similar pipeline initiatives, said Superintendent W. Burke Royster.
These efforts include the district’s LEAD (Lead, Empower, Advocate, Develop) Institute, which aims to establish a student-centered culture, head effective professional learning communities, conduct coaching cycles with targeted feedback, and use data to support improved instruction and student achievement.
The district has also partnered with nearby Clemson University to provide tuition assistance for an Education Leadership degree that leads to South Carolina certification as a building-level administrator.
Furthermore, Contreras advised there must be more leadership roles available in schools beyond just principal and assistant principal, such as master teachers. That model, for example, could help keep the best instructors in the classroom while still providing leadership opportunities.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in this area, but it is doable,” Contreras said.
Article top image credit: Roger Riddell/K-12 Dive
The struggle over defining, reporting restraint and seclusion in schools
Special education administrators are concerned some wording in proposed revised definitions will lead to misreporting and misunderstanding.
The revisions come after education organizations, disability and civil rights advocacy groups, and the Government Accountability Office raised concerns about misreporting and problematic data in past CRDC collections, including some very large districts reporting very low rates of restraint and seclusion.
The revised definitions from the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, however, have the potential to further confuse reporting efforts by school and district administrators and contribute to future misreporting, said leaders of the Council of Administrators of Special Education.
A major barrier to reporting accurate data is the differing definitions of physical restraint and seclusion at the state and federal levels, said Phyllis Wolfram, executive director of CASE.
"What we know from years past, and given what is being proposed at this point, we continue to believe that the data reporting will be inaccurate and won't assist us to the level that it could if they would take more time and work effectively with the states to ensure that districts understand what they're reporting, how they're reporting it, and there is an accountability to it," said Wolfram.
Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment with the National Disability Rights Network, however, says the revised definitions — while they perhaps won't eliminate all ambiguities — are a good step forward in addressing data collection and reporting challenges for restraint and seclusion, which are disproportionally used on students with disabilities.
"For the OCR to continue to try and clarify these definitions to make it easier to get the information, that's a very good trend," Hager said.
Proposed CRDC definitions for physical and mechanical restraint and seclusion
Physical restraint refers to a personal restriction, imposed by a school staff member or other individual, that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely. The term physical restraint does not include a physical escort. Physical escort includes a temporary touching or holding of the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, or back of a student for the purpose of inducing a student to walk to a safe location, when the contact does not continue after arriving at the safe location. Physical escorting that involves methods used to maintain control of a student should be considered a physical restraint.
Mechanical restraint refers to the use of any device or equipment to restrict a student’s freedom of movement. The term includes the use of handcuffs or similar devices by sworn law enforcement or other school security to prevent a student from moving the student’s arms. The term does not include devices used by trained school personnel or a student that have been prescribed by an appropriate medical or related services professional and are used for the specific and approved purposes for which such devices were designed, such as:
▪ Adaptive devices or mechanical supports used to achieve proper body position, balance, or alignment to allow greater freedom of mobility than would be possible without the use of such devices or mechanical supports;
▪ Vehicle safety restraints when used as intended during the transport of a student in a moving vehicle;
▪ Restraints for medical immobilization; and
▪ Orthopedically prescribed devices that permit a student to participate in activities without risk of harm.
Seclusion refers to the involuntary confinement of a student in a room or area, with or without adult supervision, from which the student is not permitted to leave. Students who believe or are told by a school staff member that they are not able to leave a room or area, should be considered secluded. The term does not include a behavior management technique that is part of an approved program, which involves the monitored separation of a student in an unlocked setting, from which the student is allowed to leave. Seclusion does not include placing a student in a separate location within a classroom with others or with an instructor where that student continues to receive instruction, is free to leave the location and believes they can leave the location.
OCR is also making additions and revisions to other data elements — from preschool discipline rates to adding nonbinary to gender categories — for the 2021-22 data, for which the reporting to OCR will begin next school year. A public comment period is open through Feb. 11, and as of Monday, 631 comments had been submitted.
The data collection, which began in 1968, is typically on a biennial schedule. But OCR announced last August it would conduct collections two years in a row (2020-21 and 2021-22) for the first time so it could gather information about how the pandemic has impacted students and school systems.
Spotlighting inappropriate practices
CASE's position has been that restraint and seclusion in school should be used as little as possible and only in emergency situations. Some restraint practices, such as putting students in prone positions, should never be used, the group says.
CASE also supports robust recordkeeping and reporting for incidences of these practices.
But some of the terminology in the proposed revised definitions for physical restraint and seclusion is unclear and could lead to differing interpretations and potential underreporting, said Kevin Rubenstein, assistant superintendent of student services for the Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 near Chicago.
"We want to shine a spotlight on inappropriate practices," said Rubenstein, who is also CASE's policy and legislative chair. "We know that they're out there. We don't want inappropriate practices to be going on in schools, and so to the extent that these definitions allow more loopholes, we can't have that happening."
Specifically, the revised definition for physical restraint says, "Physical escort includes a temporary touching or holding of the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, or back of a student for the purpose of inducing a student to walk to a safe location, when the contact does not continue after arriving at the safe location."
The following line says, "Physical escorting that involves methods utilized to maintain control of a student should be considered a physical restraint." To Rubenstein, the last line contradicts the one before.
The revised seclusion definition starts as an "involuntary confinement of a student in a room or area, with or without adult supervision, from which the student is not permitted to leave."
But it's the next line that concerns the special education administrators: "Students who believe or are told by a school staff member that they are not able to leave a room or area, should be considered secluded."
"We don't want inappropriate practices to be going on in schools, and so to the extent that these definitions allow more loopholes, we can't have that happening."
Assistant superintendent of student services for the Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205
Although the definition also says seclusion does not include situations where students feel free to leave a location, the definition can be interpreted various ways, said Erin Maguire, president of CASE, during a Jan. 18 session at the Council for Exceptional Children's Convention and Expo in Orlando, Florida.
For example, Maguire asked, does it mean a student who is told to wait in a principal's office for a discussion can say they were secluded because they didn't feel like they were free to leave the location?
"And those of you who exist in school settings, the concept that you can leave a student in any space, given the power structures that exist between adults and students in schools, is something that I think might be missing as part of a conversation that happened when this definition was crafted," said Maguire, who is director of student support services for the Essex Westford School District in Essex Junction, Vermont.
Hager said the seclusion definition may still have room for interpretation, but the revised definition helps to at least capture better data on what clearly should be recorded as restraint and seclusion incidences.
"The most important thing is getting the best data that we can, and where there's clear errors, getting those fixed," he said.
A GAO report in 2020 found data quality control processes for restraint and seclusion were largely ineffective or nonexistent. For example, GAO researchers found for the 2015-16 CRDC, 70% of districts reported zero incidents of restraint and seclusion.
CRDC's business rule, however, only flagged potential data errors if a district enrolls at least 100,000 students. Only 30 of the nation's more than 17,000 school districts had at least 100,000 students at that time.
Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second largest school system, reported incidences of restraint in 10% of its schools and no incidences of seclusion for that 2015-16 collection.
"For the OCR to continue to try and clarify these definitions to make it easier to get the information, that's a very good trend."
Managing attorney for education and employment with the National Disability Rights Network
Hager also emphasized that the data collection is not a judgment call on whether the action was appropriate. The data can help educators and advocates identify trends and outliers and understand where more support is needed for practical or reporting purposes, he said.
For special education administrators, restraint and seclusion data can help determine interventions for students or training needed for staff, Wolfram said.
OCR also relies on the CRDC data to investigate complaints alleging discrimination or violations of federal civil rights laws, as well as to take proactive measures such as providing policy guidance and technical assistance to schools, parents, students and others.
In addition, OCR also collects data on the use of mechanical restraints, which are devices or equipment that restrict a student's movement. A proposed revised definition adds that mechanical restraint "includes the use of handcuffs or similar devices by sworn law enforcement or other school security to prevent a student from moving the student’s arms."
Some disability rights advocacy groups, such as the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, are calling for OCR to also collect information about the use of medication or drugs in schools to control behavior or restrict movement.
Although restraint and seclusion is used on a small number of students — 101,990 out of more than 50.9 million students in 2017-18 — it is used at a disproportionate rate for students with disabilities. Eighty percent of students restrained and 77% of students secluded in 2017-18 qualified for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act even though they only make up 13% of the total student population.
Disproportionate use of restraint and seclusion, SY 2017-18
13% of students have disabilities but are involved in a higher portion of restraints and seclusions.
The Frederick County School District in Maryland recently entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice after an investigation found that over two-and-a-half school years, from 2017 through 2020, the school system restrained or secluded 125 students 7,253 times, or an average of 58 times per student.
Every student secluded was a student with disabilities, as were 99%, or all but one, of those restrained.
There is no federal statute limiting the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. A bill in Congress would prohibit the use of seclusion, mechanical and chemical restraints, as well as physical restraint that limits a student's breathing.
Policy watchers, however, doubt the legislation will progress this year due to other pressing congressional action and the midterm elections.
The CRDC currently collects data about mechanical restraint, which includes using a device that restricts a student's movement.
Improving data quality control
The CRDC collection for restraint and seclusion began in 2009 and is disaggregated by race and ethnicity, gender, disability status and English learner status.
Improving data quality problems regarding instances of restraint and seclusion should be a key priority area for the Education Department, the GAO said in a letter last year to Secretary Miguel Cardona. Specifically, GAO recommended the department set a business rule targeting schools and school districts that report both very low and very high numbers of incidents and set data-driven thresholds to detect such incidents.
Wolfram said OCR's efforts are appreciated and school systems will likely need more support for quality recordkeeping and professional development as they deal with staffing shortages and high turnover rates exacerbated by the pandemic.
Disruptions to schooling due to COVID-19, Wolfram said, also elevated the need for support for students with social, emotional and behavioral challenges, and renewed concerns about the potential inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion.
Administrators need clear guidance about the expectations for reporting at the state and federal levels, she said.
"This data is something that we need so that we can figure out where we need to intervene and do better, Wolfram said
Article top image credit: Jon Cherry via Getty Images
Black teachers more likely to be highly qualified, clock fewer years in classroom
By: Naaz Modan• Published Feb. 3, 2022
A nationally representative report on the experiences of Black educators released Thursday by the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, shows a higher percentage of Black teachers had fewer years in the classroom than teachers overall. At the same time, Black teachers had a higher rate of attaining a post-master’s degree (13%) compared to all teachers (9%).
The report is based on data from the 2017-18 National Teacher and Principal Survey, which polled 60,000 part-time and full-time public school teachers among others. It shows 37% of Black teachers had been teaching for more than 15 years, compared to 43% of all teachers who had been teaching that long.
Additional findings from the NCES report reinforce previous research — that Black teachers are highly concentrated in the South, more likely to teach in cities, and much more likely to work in schools with higher rates of minority students.
The survey, conducted prior to the pandemic, comes amid recent evidence of higher teacher turnover triggered by the pandemic. A separate report released last week by MissionSquare Research Institute shows both K-12 teachers and Black people were more likely than other government employees to change jobs.
Teacher burnout during the pandemic has been well-noted, as has the benefit of both long-time teachers and Black educators on student outcomes.
"Years of teaching experience, advanced training, and sharing a cultural identity with students have all been demonstrated to improve student learning outcomes,” said Jerry Rosiek, an education professor at the University of Oregon, in an email. “We should not have to choose between them."
But burnout could have a disproportionate impact on Black and veteran teachers, experts said.
“Veteran teachers experience greater burnout and express health concerns, therefore many of our more veteran educators are resigning or retiring,” said Dana Williams, Georgia state director at the Association of American Educators.
Rosiek added a similar story could be unfolding for teachers of color.
“As is often the case, any added stressors in working conditions often impact non-White professionals harder — because working against the grain of systemic racism in schools is already difficult,” Rosiek said. “So, we may end up losing more teachers of color as a result, which just exacerbates already existing equity challenges."
And as both novice and veteran teachers are now leaving the profession, some places have loosened the qualifications to land a teaching job or enter the profession.
“Unfortunately for our Black students, the new Black teachers lack classroom management, learned teaching strategies, teacher experience, and have little or no on-the-job training,” Williams said. “Because of the pandemic and teacher shortage, many schools are making rash decisions by lowering hiring standards and unfortunately are operating as essentially day care centers.”
These changes to the workforce are unfolding as more students — especially Hispanic and Black students — fall behind, and as the achievement gap widens.
“We need to have a reset on education and figure out how to hire and retain high-performing Black educators so that we are ultimately benefiting all students, but our Black students especially suffer from their absence,” Williams said.
Ed Dept asked to extend deadline for school upgrades under relief funding
How and if obligation and spending deadlines can be shifted is what concerned organizations are researching now.
By: Kara Arundel• Published Feb. 3, 2022
Two of the three school buildings in Evergreen School District #50 in Kalispell, Montana, have aging air systems that provide poor ventilation and lack air conditioning. The district is setting aside about 75% of its Emergency and Secondary School Emergency Relief III funds for HVAC replacements later this year.
But even after a year of planning and designing for the upgrades and more than two years to go until the Sept. 30, 2024, ESSER deadline for obligating those funds, the timeline is making Superintendent Laurie Barron nervous.
In the best-case scenario, the project, which went out to bid this week, would finish before the start of next school year, with construction occurring over the summer to be less disruptive to student learning.
In the worst-case scenario, the district could fail to receive any acceptable bids, equipment could face shipping delays, and the project experiences a shortage of construction employees. The district would have to return any money not spent by the deadline.
"The money that has been put into schools to support us has been nothing short of what feels miraculous, right?," said Barron, whose 700-student, K-8 district sits about 40 minutes from Glacier National Park. "But with all the stipulations on it, there's that stress and anxiety of will we be able to expend it in the most appropriate and effective ways to benefit staff and students. And so, that's my concern."
Many other school system leaders are also concerned about the obligation and spending deadlines for ESSER funds going to school building upgrades, because these types of projects typically need a long runway from conception to construction to completion.
"I can only imagine if we're having these struggles and we planned way far ahead, well, there are going to be struggles for our schools across America."
Superintendent of the Evergreen School District #50 in Kalispell, Montana
Last month, more than 30 organizations, consisting of education groups, engineers and health and environmental advocates, signed a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona seeking an extension through December 2026 for the timeline school districts have to expend funding for school construction and capital projects under the American Rescue Plan, which has the most funding dedicated under ESSER. ARP is also known as ESSER III.
Updating school facilities can ensure healthier and safer school environments, the letter said. But if the timeline for ARP funding is not stretched, "then critical school facility upgrades and major capital improvements may not be a possibility for many districts across the country," the letter stated.
Is an extension possible?
Whether the ESSER timeline can be extended is what organizations are researching now.
Sasha Pudelski, director of advocacy for AASA, The School Superintendents Association, one of the organizations that wrote to Cardona, said the Education Department is receptive to hearing concerns about the timeline.
Preliminary data AASA has gathered from superintendents across the country indicate supply chain issues could be limiting a majority of districts’ ability to spend ARP funds on HVAC upgrades and other key construction-related projects, Pudelski said.
It's unclear if the Education Department has the authority to make that extension or if congressional approval is needed through an appropriations bill or stand-alone legislation.
Luke Jackson, an Education Department spokesperson, said in an email the department has received the letter, values the feedback, and plans to respond to the authors directly.
The ARP statute says funds are available to the department through Sept. 30, 2023, but the department has applied to this deadline a principle called the “Tydings Period,” found in the General Education Provisions Act, which allows another 12 months, or through Sept. 30, 2024, to obligate those funds.
Districts then have a liquidation period of up to 120 days after that date to finish drawing down the money, said Julia Martin, legislative director at Brustein & Manasevit, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm specializing in education, workforce and grants management, in an email.
If a proposed extension took a legislative route, it would have to undergo scrutiny from the Congressional Budget Office to determine whether it would cost extra money, as well as debate among lawmakers over what constitutes the period of emergency for those "emergency" funds, Martin said.
The U.S. Department of Treasury recently issued a final rule that allows state and local fiscal recovery spending, known as SLFRF, through Dec. 31, 2026, but has a Dec. 31, 2024, obligation deadline. It's unclear whether that could serve as an example for extending education ARP spending.
Unmet building needs
Because of the expense and planning for school capital and upgrade projects, it's often a district initiative that gets delayed in favor of funding instructional programs, Pudelski said.
She also said even a three-year period can be tight for certain building upgrades during non-COVID-19 times, when school systems didn't experience the scale of supply chain delays and staff shortages currently faced.
A 2021 report from the 21st Century School Fund, the International Well Building Institute and the National Council on School Facilities found the U.S. is underinvesting in school buildings and grounds by $85 billion each year. A Government Accountability Office report in 2020 found 41% of districts required HVAC systems upgrades or replacements in at least half their schools. Of the 55 schools GAO visited in six states, officials in about half described HVAC-related problems in their buildings, such as older systems that leaked and damaged flooring or ceiling tiles.
Using COVID-19 relief funding to replace HVAC systems in schools is a popular initiative, according to data collected by Burbio and FutureEd. A Feb. 1 analysis of COVID-19 relief spending plans from 2,742 districts in 48 states showed 1,433 districts plan HVAC upgrades. Districts are also planning school facility repairs to prevent illnesses, create or improve outdoor classrooms, and provide personal protective equipment.
Barron, the Evergreen School District superintendent, says replacing the HVAC systems in the district's two schools "would have remained a dream" if not for the ESSER funding. She declined to say the exact amount the district has budgeted for the project because the bidding period doesn't close until Feb. 18, but did say it's several million dollars. The district's regular annual budget is just over $5 million.
"We would have never been able to do this, so we're really pleased with the opportunity to improve health and safety and development," Barron said. "I mean, it's a once-in-a-career opportunity."
But Barron will be closely watching the calendar, hoping her district's project stays on track. She also is concerned about colleagues in other districts that don't have full-time maintenance staff to help plan for and organize construction projects.
"I can only imagine if we're having these struggles and we planned way far ahead, well, there are going to be struggles for our schools across America," Barron said
Article top image credit: Permission granted by Laurie Barron
A closer look at school management in K-12
As the nation advances out of the health crisis, K-12 now finds itself at a crossroads with perhaps its closest opportunity to hit "reset" and rethink school designs for the future. Alongside that imperative, schools also face questions around disciplinary measures, diversifying teacher and leadership pipelines, and more.
included in this trendline
Data shows public schools faced greater disadvantages than private in 2020
Diversifying, expanding the assistant principalship key to repairing leadership pipelines
The struggle over defining, reporting restraint and seclusion in schools
Our Trendlines go deep on the biggest trends. These special reports, produced by our team of award-winning journalists, help business leaders understand how their industries are changing.