Berks County school districts are getting another helping hand in dealing with the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week Gov. Tom Wolf outlined how much each Pennsylvania school district and charter school will share in nearly $5 billion in federal funds from the recently passed American Rescue Plan.
In Berks, that amount totals more than $160 million.
The biggest boon is to the Reading School District. The $104.5 million the city school district will get is the second largest amount across the state, behind only Philadelphia School District's more than $1.1 billion.
But other local districts will also get sizable amounts.
The smallest amount will go to the Kutztown School District, which will receive just over $1.8 million. Seven districts, including Reading, will each get more than $4 million.
Funds were allocated based on the formula to calculate federal Title-1-A funds, which provide financial assistance to local districts and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families.
What the money is for
The education funding is part of President Joe Biden's sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package called the American Rescue Plan.
The plan was approved by Congress this month and signed into law by Biden on March 11. It included things like $1,400 checks that were sent directly to millions of Americans, $160 billion for a national vaccine program, money for rental and mortgage assistance programs and $130 billion to help schools reopen.
It sent $6.5 billion to Pennsylvania aimed at getting kids back in classrooms and addressing learning loss caused by the pandemic. The state is directing $4.9 billion of that for kindergarten through 12th grade education, including $4.4 billion going directly to public school districts and charter schools.
"All schools have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and I commend school communities for rising to the challenge to combat the toll it has taken," Wolf said in a statement announcing the allocations. "This extra funding is critical to help schools meet the unique needs of educating students at this time while keeping school buildings safe when students return to the classroom."
At least 20% of the funds each district or charter school receives must be spent to address learning loss created by the pandemic and the social, emotional and academic needs of underrepresented students, including students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness and children in foster care.
The rest of the money can be spent in a variety of ways, including food service, professional training, technology purchases, sanitization and cleaning supplies, summer and after-school programs and mental health supports.
Districts and charter schools have until September 2024 to spend the funds.
"Our school communities need these additional resources to invest in instructional materials, equipment, facilities, transportation and more, and we are pleased to make these funds available to them," acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega said in a statement released Monday. "These funds will provide more assistance to school communities as we continue to navigate the pandemic."
The new funding is the third batch of COVID-19 relief funding the federal government has provided to schools during the pandemic.
Much needed and appreciated help
Local school leaders said the federal funding is a welcome aid amid the yearlong struggle dealing with COVID.
"I would say that we are always grateful when our legislators at the federal and state level allocate funding for the important work we do in schools," said Dr. Kimberly Minor, Exeter School District superintendent. "I think the pandemic has shone a bright light on how essential schools are to the social fabric of this country and the hard work of teachers each and every day.
"We are hopeful that these funds will allow us to aggressively respond to learning loss to ensure that all of our students have a bright post-pandemic future."
Dr. Khalid Mumin, Reading School District superintendent, said the more than $100 million his district is set to receive will make a huge difference.
"This is such encouraging news, in the midst of the pandemic, as we are seeking ways to address learning loss, social emotional learning, preparation and innovation for education in a new era post the pandemic," he said. "Succinctly, 20% of the funding as mandated will focus on learning loss, throughout the summer and into next school year, while the remainder of the allocation will be used to focus on the future of the Reading School District."
Mumin said the future-focused spending will include investments in innovation at all levels of education, workplace readiness, arts programming and professional development opportunities for staff.
Tracy Shank, superintendent of the Oley Valley School District, said the nearly $2.3 million her district will get will go to good use.
"For Oley Valley School District it means being able to accelerate learning through academic intervention programs, additional multitier systems of support and the opportunity to repair aging infrastructure without adding expenses to the 2021-22 budget or utilizing capital funds," she said.
Andrew Potteiger, Brandywine Heights School District superintendent, called the American Rescue Plan funding a wonderful resource that will help schools handle costs related to COVID-19 and support students.
"We all know that the last year has been a challenging time," he said. "Student learning and emotional stress has been a reality for some students. These funds are an excellent way to provide additional supports for our students, both academically and through the social, emotional lens."
Potteiger said Brandywine Heights is developing a two-year plan to add teachers at all levels to support student learning, as well as additional staff to support social and emotional health.
Potteiger said districts must be cautious when deciding how to spend the funds because they are a one-time payment. That means avoiding using them to fill budget gaps or to create long-term, ongoing costs.
"If the funds would be used to fill normal operating expenses in the budget, in subsequent years when the grant funds are exhausted there would be a significant budget gap that would extremely difficult to fill," he said. "The strategy for the fund application is a balanced approach in developing avenues to support students and COVID-19 operating expenses that can be phased out when the grant funds are exhausted."
Officials in the Boyertown School District said they will likewise be careful about how they use the federal dollars coming their way.
"The Boyertown School District has experienced cost increases related to the pandemic, and these funds will be an important factor in meeting the financial challenges posed by the pandemic" said Patricia J. Denicola, chief financial officer. "Boyertown will, however, proceed with caution in utilizing the funds provided by the American Rescue Plan, as these funds are one-time funds and will not be a continuing revenue source."
Kutztown School District Superintendent Christian Temchatin said he is pleased and grateful that the federal and state government are recognizing the impact of the COVID-19 experience on students and communities.
"This significant financial commitment places the resources necessary to meet students' needs in the hands of local educators to make a difference," he said. "The American Rescue Plan will far exceed the financial impact on our district. But in addition to funding the increased staffing needed this year to account for multiple modes of instruction and equipment purchased for health and safety practices, it provides the means to increases services in the immediate future to address social, emotional and academic needs."
Temchatin said the district will be sure to use the funding wisely and avoid potential pitfalls that one-time sources of money can create
"Short-term funding can lead to a financial cliff when the funding runs out," he said. "Districts must plan strategically and conservatively to ensure a budget that is sustainable three years in the future."