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Flagstaff Unified School District presents COVID funding application
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Flagstaff Unified School District presents COVID funding application

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Students wearing masks fill the halls of Coconino High School during a passing period in this August file photo.

Schools across the country have received funding over the past year and a half to help them respond to COVID-19. Flagstaff's K-12 schools have used those funds in a variety of ways as they attempt to help their students and staff through the pandemic.

The most recent national school relief funding is ESSER III (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund), passed in March as part of the American Rescue Plan. These funds are available for K-12 schools to use in COVID relief and recovery efforts until September 2024.

ESSER III’s specific requirements include that at least 20% of funds must be used to address learning loss and that schools must post a plan to return to safe in-person instruction and consult with stakeholders in developing both the plan and budget.

FUSD first proposed a plan for its $13.7 million allocation in their June 22 board meeting. They have been asking for community input, including a parent survey over the past month and, in their Aug. 24 board meeting, said they expected to submit their application by the end of the week.

“We are so grateful that we are receiving those federal dollars to help us bridge through this time,” said FUSD superintendent Michael Penca in the June 22 meeting. “We know the recovery from COVID-19 will take us years and so its nice that we do have these dollars to spend.”

He presented an updated draft of their ESSER III application on Aug. 24. It includes more for learning loss response ($330,721.11, bringing the total to about $3.25 million), taken mostly from the remaining funds category listed in the previous draft.

Penca explained some of the changes to the board, a list that included after-school intervention and enrichment, professional learning, participation in the model schools network and a proposal to extend paid sick leave for staff affected by COVID.

“These funds, since we have them through September 2024, buy us some time to reprioritize our Maintenance and Operations budget, but we are cautious about recurring costs,” he said. “...It does allow us to do those things above and beyond and can be attributed to COVID-19 and our relief [and] recovery.”

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A little under 70% of FUSD's ESSER III funding ($9,250,000) has been set aside for facility improvements and equipment, mainly updating the HVAC systems at Knoles, DeMiguel and Cromer Elementaries as well as at Mount Elden Middle School. An audit of the systems had showed they were older and not meeting current standards, Penca said in the July 13 meeting.

He said they would like to follow this project with a multi-year plan to make similar improvements to schools across the district. This part would not be included in the ESSER funding and would be presented to the board in the future.

"Over a course of years," he said, "we could enhance those systems so they meet new standards for air quality, energy efficiency and also add air conditioning. We have very few air-conditioned spaces in this district and as we’re experiencing heat that may be our new norm, we’re recommending..adding air conditioning."

The district received a little over $7.7 million in funding from the first two ESSER grants over the course of the pandemic. ESSER I was part of the CARES Act passed in March 2020 and ESSER II was part of December 2020’s CRRSA Act. 

A little under half of FUSD’s $1.57 million ESSER I grant ($719,627.20) went to technology and software updates like hot spots, data plans and Zoom software. Around 15% each went to hiring additional staff and cleaning services and purchasing safety equipment.

The district then received $6.1 million in ESSER II funding, 42% of which went to staff leave and professional learning ($2,563,149). Examples of those expenses the district listed in their budget include “additional contract days to prepare for in-person learning, Family First leave [for] July 2020-June 2021, retention stipend [in] Fiscal Year 2022… [and] COVID liability insurance.” Another 26% of the funding went toward additional safety equipment, including equipment, security and live streaming for graduation.

Penca outlined FUSD's use of ESSER I and II funding in a presentation at their June 22 board meeting, where the third grant was first brought up. He said the district had made some changes to their ESSER II application in response to ESSER III’s specific requirements.

“It looks like [fewer] dollars were spent on curriculum and learning because, as we move into the ESSER III, there’s a requirement that 20% of those funds were spent related to learning loss. So some of the things that we were originally building in the application for ESSER II, we slid those over into opportunities for the draft budget for ESSER III,” he said.

He said that when considering how to use the grants, the district also had to take their time limits into account. This affects their proposal in a couple ways--ESSER III goes for multiple fiscal years, for example, so the funds needed to be more spread out. But because there is an end date and limited funds, they are also focusing less on things that would need to be sustained over a long period of time.

“It’s great to put [ESSER III funds] into salaries and people, but it will go away,” said board president Carole Gilmore in the June 22 meeting. “We need to look at what we can do long-term that will be here and be very meaningful for our stakeholders and our students especially, down the road.”

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