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The Lowell School District has used its federal pandemic aid to hire dozens of additional tutors and educators to work directly with students and added afterschool programming. Chicago is hiring nearly 1,000 math and literacy tutors and focusing on improving attendance, and San Antonio is adding 30 days of optional instruction to the school year.
But in Boston, much of the more than $430 million in federal coronavirus relief funds is being spent on air conditioning, air purifiers, and air quality monitors — something school leaders say is necessary to keep students learning safely.
The leaders say they, too, will use the federal aid for bolstering academics by offering free tutoring, a new literacy program, and new books. But critics argue those initiatives should have been in place when school started and worry Boston isn’t urgently focused on helping students recover from nearly two years of disrupted schooling
“That’s all pretty basic stuff to help keep students safe,” said Suleika Soto, a parent organizer with her own children at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester and the Blackstone Elementary School in the South End. “I was expecting a plan — and services — to get to a place where our children are thriving. But I haven’t seen it.”
Boston’s initial focus on health and safety and delay in hiring and training staff to help students catch up academically have left schools to fill in the gaps. The district will let its individual campuses decide how to spend at least $62 million of the federal money the district receives.
Critics say the decentralized approach is producing a patchwork of strategies and resources that may explain why Boston doesn’t appear to have a cohesive, citywide plan for reengaging students and helping them close learning gaps.
While individual schools will get their own money to spend, they are not required to use it on supporting students academically, raising concerns that disparities will widen across schools.
A dozen students, principals, and teachers told the Globe in interviews that they’ve seen little evidence of money spent in their schools beyond basic repairs, a few new staff members, and teacher training.
“It’s a lot of money,” said Will Austin, chief executive officer of Boston Schools Fund, a local organization that raises money to improve performance at Boston schools. “If I’m a kid or an educator, I should see those dollars now.”
Boston’s approach of giving schools autonomy to choose their methods to help students catch up might backfire, said Bree Dusseault, a former school principal now at the Center for Reinventing Public Education who is tracking how districts are using their federal relief money.
So far, only 47 of 125 Boston schools have submitted initial applications during the first round of funding, and 16 have submitted more complete proposals for a second round, according to the district. Complete final proposals are due next month. The district has budgeted $3 million to hire 10 academic recovery coaches to help schools over two years, but has only hired two so far.
The danger is that without support, some principals and districts will end up using the money “to shore up budget shortfalls” instead of “investing in new strategies,” she said.
“They need to make sure they do get those funds spent so they don’t end up spending them on non-student-centered things down the road,” Dusseault said.
Since the pandemic started, the federal government has provided an unprecedented $190 billion for districts to spend on purchasing personal protective equipment, delivering remote learning, providing mental health support, and focusing on closing achievement gaps.
The largest installment of relief money has yet to come for most Massachusetts schools. Boston has yet to apply for the remaining $276 million in money it’s eligible for. The COVID relief law requires districts to spend at least 20 percent of that funding on academic recovery.
The money is allocated to school districts based on the number of students they have living in poverty. Boston received the highest amount of federal funds in the state since it has the largest share of low-income students.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, however, waves off the federal money as a significant investment, saying the district is in “good shape” compared to many districts that had to cut positions during the pandemic. The district’s annual budget is $1.4 billion, more than three times what the federal government is providing in pandemic-related funding over a three-year period. Boston spends around $23,000 per student each year.
“This one time infusion of cash — it’s nice, but the game changer is the $1.4 billion” in annual spending, Cassellius said.
But other cities say the federal money is a game changer and have acted swiftly to spend it on academics. Lowell, for example, was approved in June for its second round of funding and applied in August for its third. Boston was approved this month for its second round and has yet to apply for the third.
“We’re a poor district,” said Lowell Chief Financial Officer Billie Jo Turner, where the current annual budget is $266 million, about $15,000 per student. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do all of the things we couldn’t before.”
But in Boston, where about 60 percent of schools were constructed before World War II, Cassellius said the idea of bringing children back into buildings that did not have ventilation systems or operable windows “kept her up at night.” That’s why she targeted $28 million of the most recent $123 million federal allocation to improve facilities, and promote health and safety.
“I walked hundreds of schools in Minnesota over eight years, and I never saw schools like I see in Boston,” said Cassellius. “The fact that in the last two years we’ve been able to give them attention is very important to me because I think our children deserve schools that look like suburban schools.”
One of the largest expenditures of the federal aid Boston has proposed is $20 million for air conditioners to be installed in classrooms in 90 schools this fall, long after the summer heat abates. In addition, 92 schools already have received air quality monitors, at a cost of $4.3 million.
Boston school leaders have taken longer to articulate a centralized academic recovery strategy and will put most of their energy this year into a new long-term reading initiative, paid for with federal relief money.
The $1.5 million to carry out the new literacy strategy represents less than one-half percent of the total in federal funds, and critics say it’s not enough. They also question the timeline that gives BPS until next year to fully train the teachers and purchase new high-quality library books.
“Where’s the urgency?” Barbara Fields, a retired Boston Public Schools administrator and the former president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, asked administrators at a recent presentation on the new literacy strategy. “This doesn’t seem like a plan to me.”
Boston announced other centralized academic strategies only after MCAS scores were released last week showing a decline in the share of students meeting grade level expectations in math and reading. The district plans to provide all students with access to an online tutoring service and another 150 students in-person tutoring.
Boston also plans to use federal funds to help schools hold math and English Language Arts “acceleration academies” during February and April vacations, but hasn’t determined what happens for students who attend schools that don’t offer those opportunities.
“The accountability falls on me and the school superintendents to ensure that the schools and students that need this most are getting this,” said Drew Echelson, Boston’s chief academic officer.
At the Blackstone Elementary School, where Soto’s daughter studies, administrators are still preparing their application for federal funds. Schools this year will receive $813 in federal relief money for each student who is low-income, in special education, or still learning English.
Soto hopes the Blackstone will use its $728,000 to buy its own library books, instead of using the books on loan from a nearby nonprofit organization. She also hopes the school hires more staff to directly help students with reading and math.
“Resources have always been a problem at this school. Now we finally have some,” Soto said. “I hope they don’t waste it.”
Take a look at the initial federal school allocations to see how much your school received:
Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.