COVID relief helps students, teachers get ready for school days back in class

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Sen. Jon Ossoff enter the library at DeKalb County’s Lake Kelley elementary for a talk with parents. (Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder)

Students in some of the state’s largest districts will be back at the bus stop Monday, Aug. 2, including Cobb, DeKalb, Clayton, and Cherokee counties.

Teachers have long had to deal with summer brain drain in a typical year as children return from a vacation more likely to include swimming lessons and late-night video game sessions than times tables and phonics drills.

But this year could be especially critical for returning students as teachers work to measure and overcome the learning loss following a school year and a half characterized by quarantines and abrupt switches to digital learning.

Lawmakers are hoping teachers’ efforts will be bolstered by an infusion of federal cash from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Back to school spending

Georgia’s public schools have been awarded more than $4.2 billion from the federal aid plan. On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education approved the state’s plan for the final round of $1.4 billion spending on Georgia schools.

The majority of the funding – 90% – will go directly to school districts. About $425 million will be used to take care of statewide needs, as required by federal legislation. School districts are required by federal law to spend 20% of their allotment to make up for learning loss, and the state is required to use 5% of its money to address learning loss, 1% to support summer enrichment, and 1% to support after-school programs.

At the state level, Georgia will use the money to catch up after lost learning opportunities, remove barriers to learning, and personalize support for students, schools, and educators said State School Superintendent Richard Woods.

“We are focused on supporting learning, expanding resources for student mental health and well-being, and ensuring the safety of students, staff, and families,” Woods said in a statement. “We will use these funds to deploy state-level Academic Recovery Specialists, establish school-based health clinics, and more – the resources we’ve been given will directly support schools and students.”

School districts across the state have spent their allocations on new devices, mental health and emotional support for students and employees, learning resources and measures designed to improve student health and reduce the spread of germs in schools.

On Friday, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona visited DeKalb County to tour Kelley Lake Elementary, a local school that used federal money to spruce up its ventilation system and roof.

“Whenever we had rain, we had all these trash cans lined up in the hallways,” said maintenance director Bobby Moncrief as he led Cardona through a classroom. “Now, since we’ve replaced the roof, we can actually use the trash cans for what they were designed for instead of just catching water.”

After the tour, Cardona told a group of parents gathered for a round table discussion that he was glad to see the pandemic aid used on projects intended to benefit student health.

“It’s being used to improve the ventilation system, the airflow, so that the learning environment is safer and more comfortable for our students,” he said. “I love what I see here; I love the use of emergency funds to improve air quality. This is what we want to see nationwide, where there are concerns about ventilation. You did it right here.”

The battle over masks continues

The Kelley Lake parents gathered at the meeting struck a positive tone about sending their kids back to school next week, thanks, they said, to the improved infrastructure as well as the safety measures imposed by the district. 

DeKalb County Schools will require masks for students at the start of the school year, regardless of their vaccination status, as will districts including Clayton and Atlanta Public Schools.

“At home, as a parent, I keep reminding my children, you’ve got to keep your mask on, you’ve got to keep your mask on,” said Carla Moore, a mother of a daughter getting ready to start kindergarten at Kelley Lake and a son who just finished fifth grade there. “I’ve already packed the book bags with the hand sanitizer and the little bitty can of Lysol. I know the staff here, because of the communication from the school, I know that is going to be reiterated, that you keep your mask on.”

Other large metro Atlanta districts, including Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties, are recommending but not requiring masks in school buildings.

The largest counties outside the Atlanta metropolitan area, Savannah-Chatham County, Muscogee and Richmond, are also going mask-optional.

Masks and vaccines have sparked conflict in school board meetings across the state. In May, Gov. Brian Kemp told a Fox News host he intended to sign an executive order preventing local school districts from banning masks, but the actual order only prevents them from using the public health state of emergency as a basis for requiring masks. Kemp allowed the public health state of emergency to expire July 1, before the start of the fall semester, so schools would not have been able to attribute a mask mandate to the order anyway.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend everyone eligible to get a vaccine do so, and those two and older who are not vaccinated should wear a mask while indoors — advice shared by the vast majority of scientists and medical professionals.

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that all staff and students older than two should wear masks, given that vaccines are not available for the youngest students, an inability to confirm vaccine status and continued concerns about the resurgent delta variant

In one CDC study, just attending school or child care did not result in greater odds of contracting COVID-19, but gatherings outside the home and lack of consistent mask use in school were associated with more cases.

Still, some, mostly on the right end of the political spectrum, see any COVID-19 restrictions as symbolic of government overreach and an attempt to control the population. 

And with Georgia’s low vaccination rates, the potential for COVID-19 spread among the unvaccinated, and the fact that vaccines are not yet approved for children under 12, the battle over masks could reignite as some worry about the virus spreading and mutating at schools.

When children contract COVID-19, they usually only experience mild symptoms, but they can, in rare cases, suffer severe complications, and they can also spread the illness to adults.

Cardona urged adults to get vaccinated now and told parents to have their children immunized as soon as they can. He told reporters Friday he would not send his children to a school that did not follow the CDC’s advice, but he stopped short of calling for school mask mandates.

“Our school leaders, district leaders and health officials should be looking at the data in making the best decisions for their communities,” he said. “In this community, they’re masking.”

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