By: Edward B. Clark and Andrea Thomas Brandley
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.
K–12 education in Utah has or will receive over $1.1 billion in COVID-19–related federal funding.[i] Many in the community are speaking up about where and how this money should be spent. Some encourage investment in K–12 special education and mental health.[ii] Utah already focused some CARES Act funding on students of color or those who are economically disadvantaged who saw large dips in grades and attendance during the pandemic.[iii]
A survey of school districts and charter schools revealed what some local education agencies are doing to try to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. When asked what intervention strategies they were using to address unfinished learning for elementary students:
- 95% said they were focusing on “supporting social, emotional, and behavioral needs”
- 92% were using assessment to diagnose unfinished learning
- 62% were expanding learning time
Survey responses for schools with secondary students were similar.[iv]
As schools work to alleviate the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on student learning and well-being, leaders should carefully consider how to spend these federal funds. Because this is one-time funding, investments in short-term mitigation strategies such as temporary additional mental health resources, expanded tutoring and instruction time, and technological investment to improve student assessment and early intervention would be appropriate.
However, COVID-19 has uncovered many issues that will require significant long-term solutions. We believe that there is a unique opportunity for state and local governments to consider long-term investments in students, teachers, and expanded programs designed to address both critical current risks and improve long-term educational and social outcomes. One-time federal COVID-19 funding could pilot many of these programs. Here are some of our recommended priorities:
- Expand school-based mental health services – A Gardner Institute Fact Sheet recently reported on the emerging epidemic of mental health challenges many children may face, and in Utah we know these challenges occur within a deficit of available mental health services. School-based mental health programs and services, including comprehensive screening, early diagnosis, and therapy, are integral to harm reduction—particularly for those at highest risk, including those living below poverty, in unstable families, and in rural communities.
- Invest in teacher relief – Even in a “normal” year, teachers are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of responsibility they face. In a survey of Utah teachers, more than half of teachers who left the profession indicated emotional exhaustion, stress, and burnout were extremely influential in their decision to leave.[v] Examples of immediate steps that could be taken to address their needs include:
- Providing sufficient paid preparation time
- Reducing class size (hiring more teachers)
- Expanding classroom instruction teams to facilitate real-time tutoring
- Providing affordable childcare
- Preplanning for the next pandemic to avoid school shutdowns
Investing in teacher support could help ensure a robust workforce to offset the impending wave of retirements and declining supply of new teachers.
- Assess and intervene early – Develop and deploy new techniques for real-time assessment and intervention in student performance. Ensure students have opportunities for remediation before course failure. Initiate long-term follow-up strategies to track and support high-risk students across grade levels and from primary through secondary education.
Similar to times of war and natural disaster, school-age children unfortunately bear the brunt of the education disruption—in some cases for their entire lives. The same will be true for some of our children who were most impacted by COVID-19. Many educators and other education stakeholders have been hard at work trying to improve outcomes and ease negative pandemic impacts for our children. When invested wisely, additional resources can support those efforts and take them to the next level. Now is the time to intervene. As a community we have the insight, the tools, the expertise, and the money. Let’s act!
Edward B. Clark, MD, is a Senior Advisor at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and a Professor, Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah. His focus is health care systems in a post-COVID environment, and the medium- and long-term effects of the pandemic on the health and well-being of women and children.
Andrea Thomas Brandley is a research associate at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and a former teacher in Utah’s K–12 schools.
[i] Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, Utah Coronavirus Stimulus Summary, updated October 5, 2021. https://gopb.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/COVID-19-State-and-Federal-Relief-Funds-Summary-10.5.2021v2.pdf
[ii] Glauser, J. (2021, July 8). Utah needs urgent investment in K-12 special ed and mental health. The Salt Lake Tribune. https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2021/07/08/jeremy-glauser-utah-needs/
[iii] Tanner, C. (2021, July 7). How Utah will spend $205 million to help students catch up after COVID-19. The Salt Lake Tribune. https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2021/07/07/how-utah-will-spend/
[iv] Curry, J. (2021, February 4). Cares Survey Report: Presentation to the Utah State Board of Education. https://civicclerk.blob.core.windows.net/stream/USBE/e0b919e5-3341-46ac-961f-2d6b967e02a6.pdf?sv=2015-12-11&sr=b&sig=m0EwJmvb8f9qK7ZJG0jr4%2F7SllerRgTCsB7KOlSsRE0%3D&st=2021-02-07T22%3A30%3A00Z&se=2022-02-07T22%3A35%3A00Z&sp=r
[v] Ni, Y. & Rorrer, A. (2018). Why do Teachers Choose Teaching and Remain in Teaching: Initial Results from the Educator Career and Pathway Survey (ECAPS) for Teachers. Utah Education Policy Center. https://daqy2hvnfszx3.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/04/19110358/ECAPS_for_Teachers_report_Feb2018_Final.pdf