By Mike De Felice
Kitsap News Group
PORT ORCHARD – South Kitsap School District is expected to get a $20.5 million slice from $122 billion in funding allocated by the federal government to help school districts across the country recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to local school officials.
“The pandemic forced South Kitsap School District to modify classrooms, staffing and nearly every aspect of daily school operations,” Superintendent Tim Winter told the Independent.
“This was true when schools were forced to pivot to remote learning and even more true as we’ve adapted to keep students on campus this year. We are grateful for the [COVID relief] funds. It wouldn’t have been feasible otherwise.”
Initially, the district used the federal funding for cleaning and safety supplies. Schools also used the money to gear up for the new reality of remote learning and the challenge of ensuring all students were able to attend class online.
This year, the school district hired additional educators to help some students get caught up after struggling with virtual learning. Looking ahead, officials plan to make infrastructure improvements to several of SKSD’s facilities with relief funding.
“At the beginning, we installed a lot of plexiglass to partition areas for staff safety,” said Jennifer Farmer, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and operations. “Tons and tons of masks were purchased. We bought masks for all of our employees, for students to have, and for people who forgot their masks.”
The district also purchased PPE items and cleaning equipment to sanitize touchpoints, particularly in areas such as cafeterias, Farmer noted. Conducting airflow testing in school buildings and redoing school nurse rooms were other big projects, she added.
Transitioning schools to remote learning came with hefty expenses. Each student was provided a Chromebook — a scaled-down laptop — to connect to their virtual classrooms. This consumed over $400,000 in federal money.
“We distributed Chromebooks to every student. Not every family had a [computer] and when parents started working from home or siblings were also learning from home, there simply weren’t enough devices in a household to do learning on a full-day basis,” Farmer said.
Internet access to every student’s home was needed to ensure equitable access to education.
Some families were unable to afford internet access, and parts of the district had spotty or no internet access. In those instances, the district purchased $105,000 worth of “hot spot” devices. These units brought internet access to households that lacked it, enabling students to learn remotely, she said.
So far, officials report the district has spent $4.8 million of federal funding.
Current school year
Hiring additional teachers to help students who fell behind during the pandemic will make up the bulk of $11 million of relief expenditures slated for the 2021-2022 school year.
“We knew from hearing about where students were from teachers or families that some students needed support coming out of remote learning,” Farmer said.
“We added positions to support learning recovery. These learning support specialists are fully certified teachers. In our elementary schools, they work one-on-one or in small groups of students to help them with any learning issues coming out of the pandemic.”
In the elementary grades, learning specialists are helping youngsters with reading and math and also teaching them general learning skills.
“Our smallest learners didn’t have an opportunity to come to school and learn basic learning skills like, ‘What am I supposed to do with my day at school?’ So, we have teachers available to show them the ropes and get them caught up in areas they were just not able to engage within a remote setting.”
In South Kitsap middle schools and at the high school, the primary focus of the learning specialists has been helping students with math, Farmer said. Other areas the federal money was used this school year include buying new furniture and acquiring amplification systems for teachers to use during class.
Social distancing requirements meant the end of two-person worktables and multi-student desks. Instead, schools had to buy individual workstations. Similarly, students were no longer able to share books, so officials had to purchase more textbooks, Farmer explained.
Once in-person teaching returned, teachers were faced with the challenge of having to speak to a classroom full of kids while wearing a mask. The district recently purchased amplification systems for classrooms. These allow teachers to wear portable microphones so their voices could be amplified.
“I am hearing really, really good things from our teaching staff about how kids can hear them. And [the kids] don’t feel like they are getting yelled at by their teachers. It has been really well received across the district,” she said.
The amplification systems are working so well they will likely continue to be used even after masks are no longer necessary, officials said.
Infrastructure improvements are priorities for future use of the congressional money.
“We have four schools identified with actively leaking roofs that we will be trying to repair, part this summer and part next summer,” Farmer said.
The plan is to repair East Port Orchard Elementary and a portion of the high school this summer; the following summer, Manchester Elementary and Olalla Elementary will get repaired.
“We are also looking at doing HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] upgrades for some spaces. We know airflow continues to be very important to ensure a safe environment. All of our systems are aging. We have not upgraded them significantly over the years.”
The Biden administration provided school districts funding from the pandemic relief plans – the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) and the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
To the delight of local administrators, there are few strings attached to the federal money.
“As far as what we can spend it on, that is pretty wide open. That was a relief,” Farmer said.
COVID relief monies do, however, need to be used by the fall of 2024.