More than $1 billion in federal relief money went to Kansas schools; new numbers show how it’s being spent

Capitol Bureau

TOPEKA (KSNT) — Kansas schools received about $1.4 billion in federal relief money. On Tuesday, Kansas school board members voted to allocate roughly $15 million to go to school districts for training teachers in literacy and math; two areas that faced major setbacks during the pandemic.

Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson delivered an annual report, showing the latest numbers on the impact the pandemic has had in Kansas schools.

Education officials have pointed to learning loss as a major problem in schools, especially as students and teachers struggled to adjust to remote learning last year. Watson told Kansas Capitol Bureau the state is trying to find a way to address the issue.

“We’re talking about having a good process, executing that process, using the money from the federal government gives us for the pandemic to really try to reach out and form better partnerships, and help those kids learn,” Dr. Watson said.

Earlier this year, the state received about $831 million in federal relief money, allocating about 90% directly to school districts for tools to help prepare and respond to the virus. The other 10% was set aside by the state, and half of those remaining dollars were earmarked to help address learning loss through training educators on how to help kids catch up. The $15 million allocated Tuesday were part of a second round of emergency assistance funds for public schools and non-public schools.

The new numbers presented in Commissioner Watson’s report show significant changes in absences, test-taking, and enrollment. According to the state’s figures, about 476,435 students are enrolled in K-12 schools in the state. This is down by about 15,000 students compared to before the pandemic. Education officials noted this could be due to more students enrolling in virtual schools or homeschooling.

The numbers also show increased rates of chronic absenteeism, especially among marginalized populations. About 17.54% of students have missed school for more than 10 days at a time. From 2019 to 2021, there was a nearly 4% increase. A spokesperson for the state’s education department said a reason behind this trend in absences has not been identified. Another extraordinary figure was shown among test-taking trends in the state. The number of parents refusing to let their child take a state exam more than doubled, now sitting at 1,964.

Watson compared the pandemic to a “storm” during his speech. Similar to a tornado or a hurricane, he explained that they can’t determine when it will end or the damage it’s going to cause. However, the commissioner said the impact of the pandemic will be looked into years down the line.

Some public school advocates agree that the pandemic has created a lasting impact, and has prompted renewed interest in bolstering student success.

Mark Tallman, a spokesperson for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that he expects that tracking the use and payoff of the investment of these federal relief dollars will be the main item for next year’s legislative session.

A special legislative committee was formed just last month to look into where this money is going, and how it’s being used. However, Tallman explained the pandemic may continue to interfere in the process.

“I think it’s very likely that some of the academic measures, test scores, ACT scores, they’re going to be down, despite more money because this tremendous event that affects students and learning took place.”

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