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Kansas Schools Prioritize Mental Health With Pandemic Aid

Indiana Public Media
Flickr, Creative Commons

Education officials overseeing the more than $1.1 billion in federal pandemic aid for Kansas schools say districts are spending much of the money to meet the mental health needs of students and staff.

BELLE PLAINE — Education officials overseeing more than $1.1 billion in federal pandemic aid for Kansas schools say districts are spending much of the money to meet the mental health needs of students and staff.

Some Kansas districts are hiring additional counselors and social workers, while others are working with community mental health centers to provide services during school hours so students and staff don't have to leave the campus, said Tate Toedman, assistant director of special education at the Kansas Department of Education who works with districts on relief fund expenditures.

Another widespread practice is hiring “intervention specialists” who can work one-on-one or in small groups to fill in learning gaps that have become apparent following months of remote learning, he said. It reduces stress on the teacher by getting those students ready for the core curriculum.

The other major trend, he said, is spending to upgrade curriculum for academic coursework as well as what educators call “social-emotional learning,” which includes skills such as social awareness, problem solving and decision making. That often involves professional development for staff.

Since March 2020, the federal government has provided $190 billion in pandemic aid to the nation's schools, an amount that is more than four times what the U.S. Education Department spends on K-12 schools in a typical year. The aid averages nearly $2,800 per student, but it varies widely by district and state, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Nationwide, high-poverty areas received much more under the funding formula.

“In the history of public education, there has never been an investment of federal funds at this level, so it needs to be as transformational as it can be,” said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita public schools, the state’s largest district.

In Kansas, the aid averages nearly $2,400 per student, but that varies among the state’s 286 school districts.

For large school districts in Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, it averages more than $5,000 per student. Hutchinson Public Schools averages more than $2,900 per student, while Shawnee Mission got more than $1,300 per student. In western Kansas, the Holcomb school district has received a bit more than $1,900 per student.

The Wichita school district, for example, is getting more than $263.7 million over three rounds. It used the first chunk in what it calls “reaction mode” to the pandemic — investing primarily in technology, Willis said. The district purchased 8,000 iPads for its prekindergarten to second grade students and 9,075 laptops for students in the other grades.

Its second round went mostly for counseling and other mental health initiatives such as hiring more counselors, psychologists and social workers and expanding hours for paraprofessional aides, she said. They have not yet dipped into their third, and largest infusion of aid, which will be more forward looking.

Many Kansas schools expect to spend much of the money on capital improvements to address air quality concerns sparked by the pandemic; replacing windows so they can open to bring in outside air and upgrading HVAC systems in aging school facilities. In Wichita, the average age of school buildings is 60 years old.

By contrast the De Soto school district — a more affluent and rapidly growing suburban Kansas City district — has more modern facilities and does not need to upgrade its HVAC systems or technology, said Superintendent Frank Harwood.

Instead, De Soto has added specialists in literacy, autism and special education. It has hired more nurses and a social worker, as well as more teachers to reduce class sizes. It also plans to offer retention incentives to encourage teachers to return for the school year.

Multiple school districts across the state have already submitted plans for what's called “premium pay” for staff. The state doesn't have a number yet for how many districts are offering retention pay.

“It is certainly something every school district is actively discussing and many are going to go that route,” said Dean Zajic, state federal coordinator for special education who helps overseeing pandemic spending.

Holcomb School Superintendent Scott Myers said his district is putting its pandemic aid into an expanded “social-emotional approach” to working with students. It hired two student advocates at its middle school and high school, and four homebound instructional liaisons, whose salaries are covered by pandemic funds for four years.

“And by that time, it will be in our DNA on how we do things,” Myers said. “So yeah, I would think it will flat out help transform our supports ... It will prove the point that we need to keep those positions.”

Associated Press