By Bob Bong
School districts throughout the southwest suburbs stand to gain millions of dollars from the COVID relief packages passed in response to the pandemic.
Local school districts from Orland Park to Evergreen Park, which already received one batch of COVID relief bucks last year, are set to receive more than $78 million from two additional funding packages to help address the many challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, state Sen. Bill Cunningham announced earlier this month.
“I’ve been so impressed by how well our students, teachers, and other school staff have navigated the difficulties of the pandemic,” said Cunningham, a Democrat who represents portions of Chicago and the southwest suburbs. “As we continue our recovery, this funding will give our schools more resources to help their students get on track and return to full-time, in-person learning.”
The first round of relief came about a year ago as part of the CARES Act relief package. It was called ESSER, which stands for Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund.
Districts spent that money on PPE and buying equipment to make schools safer for staff and students.
Oak Lawn Community High School District 229 received $358,632 in ESSER I funds last June. Asst. Supt. Joe McCurdy said, “The district utilized the ESSER funds to support our remote and hybrid learning needs. The money was used to purchase iPads, laptop computers, and software that supported staff members to teach remotely. The district also purchased personal protection equipment for students and staff members along with cleaning equipment and supplies.”
“We hired additional cleaning staff as well as new equipment to assist in the disinfection of our buildings,” said Dr. Adam J. Thorns, superintendent of Chicago Ridge School District 127.5. “New filters were also purchased for all HVAC units and we are working on upgrading certain parts of the system this summer as well.”
Orland School District 135 received $514,139 in ESSER I funds, which have to be used by Sept. 30, 2022. Supt. John Bryk said the money was used for PPE, air filters, desks, technology hardware and software, additional staffing, social emotional well-being and learning and extended summer school.
High School District 218 received $1.2 million in ESSER I funds. Business manager Ilsa Richardella said, “This phase is the initial support and was needed to acquire our initial PPE supplies, PPE testing, facilities staff training, electrostatic sprayers, sanitizing systems, hand sanitizers and dispensers, portable sinks, touchless faucets, acrylic desktop dividers, signage, nurse supplies, student class supply packs, utility carts for food service and class supply pick-up, connectivity software for remote access and virtual classroom communication.”
She said the district also received an extra $333,900 for digital equity, which must be used by June 30.
“The Digital Equity funds were used to provide technology connectivity and equipment for our students and teachers. We added wireless access points to the outside of our buildings, purchased hot spots, purchased devices (MacBooks) for remote courses that work on technology that is not possible on the standard student iPad.”
Palos District 118 received about $670,000 in ESSER I funds. Supt. Anthony Scarsella said, “These funds will be used to offset partial costs from this school year associated with the pandemic including: additional teachers to provide remote learning services to remote-only students; additional nursing support to support school health offices and additional building support staff to support students and implement the school district’s safety plan.”
Local districts are also going to receive more money from ESSER II and even more money from ESSER III, which stem from the relief package passed late last year and the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Act championed by President Joe Biden earlier this year.
ESSER II money will be available this summer. This pool of money has already been allocated to districts.
ESSER III money is coming from the American Recovery Act; $122.7 billion has been set aside for schools. Illinois is getting about $7 billion under ESSER III.
ESSER II funding can be used for the same things as ESSER I, namely to addressing learning loss, preparing schools for reopening, and testing, repairing, and upgrading projects to improve air quality in school buildings.
As for ESSER III, districts will be required to spend at least 20 percent of its money on learning loss. But beyond that, school districts can use the money to address many different issues and costs. For example, it can be used to better equip schools for safe learning, to prevent layoffs, to address students’ social and emotional needs, to fund summer programs, or to ensure all students have access to reliable Wi-Fi and technology.
Local districts don’t have firm numbers yet for ESSER III money, but the expectations are huge and when combined with ESSER II funds the totals are, in some cases, staggering.
District 218 is expected to receive $16,124,982 in ESSER II and ESSER III funds. Consolidated High School District 230 is expected to get $15,281,735 in ESSER II and III money.
Other districts will receive a fraction of that amount. Evergreen Park High School District 231 is expected to receive only $1,557,958 in combined ESSER II and III relief.
“The district will use ESSER II funds to support instructional and technology needs that allow staff to provide remote instruction if needed,” McCurdy said adding the ESSER money is expected to be available after July 1. “We will also use the funds to assistant students who need further instructional intervention or enrichment by offering summer school classes, Saturday intervention sessions, and after-school programs.”
Oak Lawn-Hometown District 123 is set to receive $2.3 million combined for ESSER I and II. Supt. Paul Enderle said the district has already spent is ESSER I money and is still learning about how the funds for ESSER II and III will be distributed.
“We have already spent ESSER I funds and ESSER II extends from the present through September of 2022. This longer timeline will assist our district in stretching this funding across the present and next school year in support of our students and school communities.”
As for ESSER III funds. “We have learned much about the grants from both the U.S. Department of Education and Illinois State Board of Education. Initially, we have plans to use the funding to support student unfinished learning through curricular and intervention enhancements, expansion of summer school programming, professional development, and tutoring opportunities. We also plan to look at HVAC infrastructure and building projects, as well as security and technology upgrades.”
District 127.5 expects to receive $3 million combined from ESSER I and II. Thorn said, “The money will be received on an expenditure basis. In other words, after the district spends the money, an expenditure report is submitted to ISBE. Historically, very soon after that, the money will be sent to the district.”
As for the additional funding, “Our district has broken it up into multiple categories including: Facilities, Technology, Curriculum, and Covid-19 supplies.
“Under Technology, we were fortunate to have enough Chromebooks on hand to get a device in every single student’s hands last spring. Now that the Chromebooks are being used daily and many of them travel back and forth from home, we will need to purchase more for replacements.
“We have also spent some of the funds on professional development for our teachers and online programs for our students to use. Learning to teach in a hybrid environment this year has been a learning experience for everyone.
“In terms of Facilities, we hired additional cleaning staff as well as new equipment to assist in the disinfection of our buildings. New filters were also purchased for all HVAC units and we are working on upgrading certain parts of the system this summer as well.
“This summer we are focused on a ramp-up summer school program that is scheduled to begin in August.
“At the beginning of the year we spent money on COVID-19 supplies on items like masks, gloves, and sanitizers.”
In District 135, Bryk said he expects upwards of an additional $4 million ESSER III funds will be available, which will be used for learning supports and interventions. He said districts will have until September 2024 to spend the ESSER III monies.
District 218 received $4.9 million from ESSER II, which has to be used by Sept. 30, 2023.
Richardella said, “We are still planning the use of the second phase funds. In addition to addressing learning loss, our initial plans for this phase include the continuation of PPE and sanitation needs, increasing the overall school and wood shop air quality, student technology software and devices, touchless door access, Upgrade to HVAC/ventilation systems, academic/social emotional support personnel, Food Service equipment, summer programs and additional nurse assistance.”
District 118 anticipates receiving $1.5 million in ESSER II funds. “We expect to receive these funds next school year,” said Scarsella. “Administration will be making a recommendation regarding the use of these funds to the school board at its upcoming May meeting.”
In total, Illinois will have received more than $7 billion from the three packages to support local school districts.