K–12 districts have received numerous rounds of federal funding by way of state governments. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds allocated in the pandemic relief stimulus packages total about $190 billion. For some, navigating these waves of K–12 federal funding — along with their deadlines and requirements — has been a challenge. Others, however, have found innovative and creative solutions to combat the learning difficulties the pandemic imposed using the available government funding.
In Delaware, the state department of education is using ESSER funds to provide digital books to students in all grades. It specifically used Education Stabilization Funds to launch this program, the goal of which is to accelerate learning rather than focus on remediation.
“We were constantly brought to the understanding that we needed to look at acceleration as the model versus remediation, because remediation just continues the cycle of students being stuck in one place,” says Monica Gant, the associate secretary of academic support for the Delaware Department of Education.
Through this program, students can access required and recreational reading materials. Because students are connected with topics they enjoy reading and learning about, they are more likely to take advantage of the books at their disposal. They can choose between e-books and audiobooks in their Sora student reading application. “Literacy definitely is our focus, and we wanted to make sure that students had the materials to be able to practice that skill,” Gant says.
Literacy’s Importance and the Interruption of Learning
Literacy is crucially important for students every year, but this year in particular brings concerns for children learning to read. In 2020, kindergarten enrollment dropped 16 percent on average in the United States, according to an NPR report. Meanwhile, a joint analysis by Chalkbeat and the Associated Press makes the claim that “a drop in kindergarten enrollment accounts for 30 percent of the total reduction across the 33 states.”
The students being held back could face significant disadvantages compared with their academically engaged peers. Young learners who aren’t enrolled in classes miss the opportunity to develop foundational reading skills. In fact, students who aren’t reading at grade level in third grade are more likely to drop out of school later, according to a long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The percentage of high school students who didn’t earn a diploma who struggled to read in third grade
Source: ncsl.org, “Pre-Kindergarten – Third Grade Literacy,” Dec. 17, 2019
Students who aren’t attending kindergarten this year and those who have fallen behind in school across all grade levels are missing the opportunity to learn. The reading program for which the Delaware Department of Education used ESSER funds aims to support these students.
“We really focused on unfinished teaching and learning versus learning loss,” Gant says. “Learning loss indicates a deficit for students, where unfinished teaching and learning means that they haven’t had that opportunity yet for a variety of reasons that we attribute to the pandemic.” With the reading materials in Delaware’s program, students have expanded opportunities to learn.
READ MORE: Schools find solutions to support students who struggled during remote learning.
Delaware’s Program Provides Support for School Districts
Between May 17 and mid-August, the program saw 18,697 books checked out. Students in the state’s 221 schools logged 7,806 hours of reading in three months. Other states facing uncertainty on how to use ESSER funding can emulate Delaware’s positive, literacy-focused approach.
Because the state’s Department of Education typically focuses on supporting professional learning or standards alignment, it knew the best way to use the funding was for support, Gant says. “The extra funds gave us a unique opportunity to be able to procure the resources we can provide to supplement what they’re doing in their districts and charters,” she notes.
Other state departments looking for creative uses of their funds should partner with their own local districts and charters to find out what they need and support them. Delaware’s partnership involves the state’s public libraries, another resource that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to closing the learning gap for students this year.
“The key for us was really making sure that we were being thoughtful about the work we were trying to do,” Gant says. “It really was around unfinished teaching and learning and providing students with equitable access no matter where they were in the state.”