BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s top public schools leader released a $132 million plan on Wednesday for spending federal coronavirus aid, saying he hopes it will help students recover from learning losses that occurred when classroom teaching moved online because of the pandemic.
Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley intends to use the dollars to expand mental and behavioral health support at schools, boost tutoring and literacy programs, enhance summer learning initiatives and add new training opportunities for teachers. He’s pushing for local districts to use their larger shares of $4 billion in federal relief money to advance the same goals for Louisiana’s 700,000 public school students as well.
Those individual district plans for academic improvement will require Brumley’s approval, and he’s expecting the districts to follow his key investment areas.
“We’re asking school systems around the state to be really aggressive over the next 10 months with the dollars that they have available to take care of these things that we know matter for kids,” Brumley said at his announcement event, held at the Knock Knock Children’s Museum in Baton Rouge.
The effort comes after Louisiana saw its standardized testing scores for students in grades 3 through 12 — through the LEAP 2025 exams — drop 4 percentage points in English and 8 percentage points in math last year, when compared to 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak began. Brumley and others blamed virtual classes for the sizable drops, saying students performed better on the tests if they had more in-person learning.
The education chief said he believes his spending outline, which he calls the “Louisiana Comeback” plan, will target the learning areas that need renewed focus to recover from the learning gaps of two years of classroom teaching disrupted by the pandemic.
But Brumley’s plan hinges on students being able to remain in classrooms, rather than learning online, even as Louisiana faces its fourth and worst surge so far of the coronavirus. Hospitals leaders say they are seeing more children getting sick with COVID-19, a worrisome trend that threatens to disrupt in-person learning.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has enacted a statewide mask mandate that applies to K-12 schools to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus illness. But the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to discuss next week whether it agrees with an opinion from Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry that suggests Edwards’ face covering requirement can’t apply to schools. Some local school districts have seen groups of parents vocally push back against forcing their children to wear masks.
Though he didn’t directly support a legal challenge to the mask mandate, Brumley also didn’t throw his support to the statewide requirement.
“I’ve leaned to local control the whole time. But I’m also not an attorney and I’m not a medical doctor, and so we’re going to have see how that plays out,” he said. “What’s most important for me is that we’re doing everything within our power to keep our kids in school every day and that we’re fostering good relationships with our families.”
Congress has allocated more than $4 billion in federal pandemic assistance to Louisiana, money that can be spent over several years. About 90% of the cash is heading directly to school systems, while the state education department oversees the remaining 10% that Brumley is tapping into for his return-to-school plan.
The state education department will spend $16 million on attendance and student wellbeing efforts, with dollars earmarked for a new statewide director of child welfare, expansion of school counseling work and other programs focused on student mental health.
A separate $90 million will be steered to academic recovery efforts, such as student tutoring vouchers, graduation planning, summer learning initiatives, afterschool programs and literacy interventions. The remaining $26 million in the superintendent’s plan will focus on professional development for teachers and schools.
The Department of Education will chart its spending of the federal pandemic assistance and eventually show how individual school systems spend their allocations of federal aid through an online site at LouisianaComeback.com.
Schools that see significant academic improvements on student test scores will be able to gain additional funding from the state.