PROVIDENCE — A longer school day, teacher bonuses, summer school and dozens of new social workers, behavioral interventionists and reading specialists.
The Providence public school district is finally on a roll spending the most recent — and largest — chunk of COVID relief money approved by Congress during the pandemic.
But Rhode Island’s largest school district, a struggling system serving 20,000 students and currently under state control due to poor academic outcomes, has tough decisions ahead as the deadline looms to spend the cash from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Among the choices school officials will need to make: should crucial new social worker positions be eliminated? Should the school day, lengthened by 30 minutes this past September, go back to what it was before? What about summer learning for all kids?
The Providence public schools received $128 million from the American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Biden in March 2021, vastly more than any other community in Rhode Island. It was the third tranche of COVID relief funds for public schools approved by Congress, and is also known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER III).
Providence was slow to spend the cash at first, having spent only 6 percent by the end of 2022, almost entirely on teacher bonuses from a 2021 contract deal. Some criticized the pace of spending, pointing to the intended emergency nature of the funds, but district officials said they were focused on spending down previous bouts of COVID relief money with earlier expiration dates.
Providence has been spending the third pot of money at a faster clip in 2023.
The school district has now spent $48 million of the ARPA funds, roughly 37 percent of the $128 million. The looming issue is not that the money is almost depleted — well over half remains ― but that the deadline to spend it is approaching on Sept. 30, 2024.
That means the 169 new positions created with the funds — including 40 behavioral interventionists and 18 social workers — cannot continue to be funded with COVID relief money next school year, deputy superintendent of operations Zack Scott told the Globe.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Dr. Javier Montañez, the superintendent. “Those are going to be tough conversations.”
In an interview with the Globe, Montañez said difficult decisions are coming down the pike, including which positions to keep and which to eliminate. There will have to be tradeoffs, he acknowledged, where some other jobs in the district could be cut in order to keep key new hires such as social workers.
In some cases, individual principals will have a say as to which positions they need to keep in their buildings.
“They have to really do some internal looking to say ‘OK, what is it exactly that we really need to support our students?’” Montañez said.
Montañez emphasized that the district sought to spend the majority of the COVID relief money on one-time expenses that would not need to be sustained year-over-year.
But much of the district’s needs coming out of the pandemic require solutions involving personnel, such as behavioral interventionists to meet the social-emotional needs of the students, or 21 new reading interventionists to combat learning loss. The salaries and benefits for the 169 jobs created with ARPA money cost $21 million. (142 of the positions are currently filled.)
Some jobs were meant to be temporary, such as staff to help expand summer learning or recruiters in human resources. Other positions that don’t provide direct student support, such as building-based directors of operations, could be cut in favor of keeping social workers, for example.
The additional social worker jobs were only recently filled, raising the question of whether they might be in place for just a single school year. District officials said 18 were hired with the ARPA funds, adding to 58 existing social workers. (There are 37 schools currently operating in the district.)
Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, said she is very concerned about layoffs happening next year.
“We’re on the verge of a fiscal cliff,” Calabro told the Globe. “The result of that will be catastrophic.”
While the district regularly cuts union positions each spring, those teachers are “displaced,” meaning they can fill another empty position, rather than being laid off outright. The social workers and behavioral interventionists are members of the teachers union.
“I actually think for the first time in many, many years ... there will be layoffs,” Calabro said. “I think that everyone’s panicking.” She said she hopes the district can find other funding sources to keep the new jobs.
The issue also has the attention of education advocates such as Rhode Island Kids Count, which has been pushing for increased social-emotional supports for children in schools.
Paige Clausius-Parks, the Kids Count executive director, said it would be a mistake to cut behavioral interventionists or social worker jobs that were newly created with ARPA money.
“That was exactly the right way that that funding should have been spent and it was intended to be spent,” Clausius-Parks said. “Children’s mental health is still in a crisis state. Kids still have increased levels of anxiety, depression and trauma.”
She said the organization is pushing for the General Assembly to appropriate state money for school social workers in order to make up for expiring federal stimulus dollars. Post-pandemic jobs for mental health professionals in schools should not be temporary, she argued.
“Pre-pandemic, we know that kids were still suffering from mental health and behavioral health challenges,” Clausius-Parks said. “The pandemic just exacerbated that.”
Scott said budget planning for the 2024-25 school year is starting earlier than usual because of stimulus money expiring, and the district will seek other sources of revenue such as grants.
But there will likely be cuts.
“I’ll be honest and say a tradeoff is never easy, there’s not a clear set of positions we can just remove,” Scott said. “But a school might choose that they really need a social worker more than an instructional coach, based on the needs of their students.”
Longer school day, teacher incentives could be on the chopping block
One of the big decisions yet to be made is whether the longer school day, touted by Governor Dan McKee and educational leaders as an “unprecedented” step forward to accelerate learning in Providence, will last longer than one academic year.
The district is planning to spend $25 million of the ARPA money this school year on the longer school day, which started in September and was negotiated with the Providence Teachers Union. The money goes towards paying the teachers to work the extra hours.
“There were a lot of students during the pandemic that needed additional supports and that’s why we want to make sure that we did everything we can just to close the achievement gap,” Montañez said.
Montañez said he does not yet know if the longer school day will continue beyond the one year. But even if the teachers union agrees to extend it, the district cannot allocate another $25 million from the ARPA funds to pay for it because of the spending deadline.
Calabro said teachers have so far given poor reviews to the extended school hours, though it’s too soon to say if the union will oppose continuing the program during contract negotiations next year.
“They don’t feel like it was used to its maximum potential,” Calabro said of the union members. “We’re seeing more fatigue of students and burnout by the end of the day.”
The same tough decisions will have to be made when it comes to continuing to offer hiring bonuses, tuition reimbursement and other incentives for teachers in hard-to-fill areas. The district has more than 100 vacant teaching positions, a problem that school officials frequently note is not unique to Providence.
The tuition reimbursement program has more than doubled the number of teachers certified in English as a Second Language or bilingual/dual language, Scott said, something Providence needed to accomplish under a Department of Justice settlement from 2018 because of its large population of students learning English, known as multilingual learners.
Tuition reimbursement existed in Providence before the pandemic, but the stimulus money allowed the school system to pay teachers back for a much higher portion of the cost to take the required classes at local colleges. Scott said the number of teachers certified in ESL or bilingual/dual language has gone from 17 percent of the staff to 40 percent under the new reimbursement program. (The district’s ultimate goal is for 52 percent of teachers to hold the certification.)
Expanded summer learning was also funded using COVID relief money, including $7 million from the ARPA funds. While summer school will still exist next year, Scott said it’s unclear if it will still be offered to all students who want to sign up, rather than just those who need to make up credits.
The largest items in the $48 million spent so far include teacher bonuses from the 2021 contract ($6 million), expanded summer and before/after-school learning ($7 million), new curriculum ($6 million), technology and software ($4.5 million), social-emotional learning supports and attendance ($3.4 million), the longer school day ($3 million), teacher recruitment and retention ($3 million), and multilingual learner supports ($2.7 million).
The money has also gone towards teacher professional development, family engagement and translation services, school redesign plans and equity initiatives.
The unspent funds have all been budgeted in a new plan recently submitted to the R.I. Department of Education. (The plan has been amended several times and can be viewed below.)
The plan anticipates ultimately spending a total of $17 million on social-emotional learning supports and attendance, as the district struggles with a significant chronic absenteeism problem. The money in that line item is going towards the new social workers, accessible furniture in special education classrooms, and resources and professional development to improve student attendance.
Hover over the below pie chart to see the full spending plan for the Providence schools American Rescue Plan Act funds.
In total, public school districts and public charters in Rhode Island received $373 million in ESSER III funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, more than a third of which went to Providence. The next highest school district was Pawtucket, which received $31 million, following by Woonsocket, Cranston and Central Falls.