Students get off the school bus at Highland Elementary School in August of 2022 in Lake Stevens. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Students get off the school bus at Highland Elementary School in August of 2022 in Lake Stevens. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Boost funding to fight covid’s drag on students

The pandemic’s effect on learning requires a further investment to fund tutoring and support for kids.

By The Herald Editorial Board

There may not be much to gain from debating the decision to close schools and move to remote learning during the covid pandemic; we can’t know with certainty what might have happened if schools had not been closed. And what’s done is done.

Yet, we do know the effect that the imperfect remedy of remote learning has meant for most students: a loss of academic achievement and social and emotional learning at all grade levels since 2020, a loss from which most have yet to recover.

Figures from the state Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction show progress in the most recent test scores for students this spring, but percentages of students in grades 3 through 10 meeting college readiness proficiency standards in both English language arts and math are not back to levels seen from the spring of 2019 before covid and the school closures hit.

That’s concerning for parents, students and educators, of course, but also alarming to those invested in encouraging student achievement and additional training and education after high school, on which the state economy and employers rely.

Even before covid hit, the Washington Roundtable, which represents many of the state’s major employers, was concerned that for the Class of 2019, only 43 percent of the state’s high school graduates were on track to earn a college degree, post-secondary training or complete an apprenticeship, credentials seen as key to career paths to family-wage jobs. The Roundtable’s goal is to see that credential attainment raised to 70 percent. But the pandemic and its learning loss have only resulted in a setback.

“We’re really concerned about the effects of the pandemic on the credential attainment rate and frankly on the students, themselves,” said Neil Strege, vice president for the organization, during a recent discussion with the editorial board.

Scores from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress are down nationwide, but for Washington state itself, “our fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores are the lowest they’ve been since we started taking these assessments,”he said.

In eighth-grade math, Strege noted, student scores in math dropped from 40 percent of students reaching proficiency to 28 percent proficient between 2018 and 2022. That’s 7 in 10 eighth-graders who don’t have the math they need to go to high school, he said.

“The only way this gets better is a laser-focus on this recovery,” Strege said.

That recovery was on the minds of federal and state lawmakers early on in the pandemic. Federal aid to Washington state school districts in the wake of covid — called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) — now totals $2.6 billion. From the start those funds were distributed to individual school districts to help prepare schools for remote learning and the transition back to classrooms, but were also intended to support academic achievement and students’ physical health and emotional well-being.

With a deadline to fully use those funds by the end of the 2023-24 school year, most school districts in Snohomish County have spent funding from the first two pots of ESSER funds, but have reserved some funding from ESSER’s third pot for the next two school years. Everett School District, for example, will have received a total of $35.7 million, with about $8.65 million remaining. Of Edmonds School District’s $31.5 million, it has about $12.4 million left to spend.

Edmonds, for example, used its initial allocation to issue laptops to all students to facilitate remote learning, said Lydia Sellie, the district’s executive director of business and finance. But that also required technical support and repair for some 20,000 Chromebooks. The funding also had been used for online learning as an option, but has since been discontinued for K-8 students.

The district also has hired additional staff to work with students who are behind on high school credits, she said. And along with hiring school nurses, the district has hired four social workers in the last two years.

“Certainly the pandemic has had more of an effect on mental health needs,” she said, which itself affects learning and achievement.

The question many school districts already are considering now are what practices can they afford to continue that the emergency funding has provided, and how will those be continued when it’s gone.

“Some things we have definitive answers for, some we don’t,” Sellie said. The intent at this point, after the ESSER pots run dry, is to retain the nurses and social workers as well as its credit retrieval efforts and an online tutoring program, open to all high school students. It may also continue an expanded summer school program.

But the funding that each district has received will be noticeable when it’s gone, which is why some hope to encourage state lawmakers, who begin their 120-day budget-year session next month, to consider funding that continues additional support for learning recovery.

Along with a list of priorities, including full funding of special education, the Washington Association of School Administrators, which advocates education policy, is seeking further investment from the state for accelerated learning opportunities, tutoring, additional instruction time and more student supports.

Winning additional state funding may be a challenge this year, even with recognition of the pandemic’s effect on student achievement. While state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal outlined a budget of nearly $5 billion, Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget released last week seeks less than $1 billion for K-12 education.

That governor’s proposal worries Dan Steele, assistant executive director for WASA, especially as schools confront increased costs from inflation.

“I would have to say that for K-12 education, this is one of the worst budgets I’ve seen for education in 10 or 15 years,” he said. “It puts us in a box when we say we need X and they say, ‘Well, the governor only wanted to provide Y,’” complicating the message to lawmakers.

It doesn’t argue against the need for continued support, but there are signs that schools are emerging from the pandemic’s drag on student achievement.

While Everett students’ scores have yet to return to pre-pandemic marks, the most recent scores this year made some double-digit jumps over the previous year’s scores in the statewide Smarter Balanced Assessment. Everett fifth-graders, for example, scored 15.5 percentage points better in English language arts, 15.5 percent better in math and 14.1 percent better in science as compared to the year previous.

As did other districts, the Everett district spent its ESSER funding on a range of efforts. And of the funds it has remaining, the district plans to spend $5.2 million in additional support of academics, teacher training and student learning, such as tutoring and summer school, and $1.7 million for student services, according to district figures.

But that spending has been focused on efforts that can be sustained after the federal funds are gone, and whether the state can offer more, said Shelley Boten, the district’s chief academic officer.

“If we can utilize this money to build sustainable practices, then when it goes away, it may hurt, but it’s not going to hurt as deeply,” she said.

Yet, as state lawmakers were reminded during the McCleary lawsuit years, education is mandated in the state constitution as the state’s “paramount duty.”

With a significant way to go to get students not just back to a pre-pandemic level but well beyond it, a level of funding is necessary that heeds that duty for coming school years.

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