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Education will never be the same after the coronavirus pandemic, and Texas school districts urgently need all the federal relief dollars they are owed to meet the needs of students and staff, local superintendents and state education leaders said Wednesday during a San Antonio Report virtual event.

Texas’ top government officials last month released $11.2 billion of $17.9 billion in federal aid for schools, weeks after education advocates began calling for the state to release the funds. Another $7 billion in federal funds for Texas schools still hangs in the balance.

Editor Robert Rivard moderated the Wednesday event, “The Battle Over $18 Billion in Federal Stimulus Funds for Texas Public Schools,” which featured two panel discussions. It was the first event in the three-part 2021 San Antonio Regional Education Forum Virtual Series.

The first panel featured Kevin Brown, Texas Association of School Administrators director; Marisa B. Perez-Diaz, District 3 representative on the State Board of Education; and Margaret Spellings, former U.S. secretary of education and president and CEO of Texas 2036, a research-driven nonprofit developing strategies to ensure the state’s success past its bicentennial. The second panel included Judson Independent School District Superintendent Jeanette Ball, Edgewood ISD Superintendent Eduardo Hernandez, and East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano.

All panelists agreed that the pandemic has altered the way education is offered and shined a spotlight on the importance of community schools that go beyond meeting students’ academic needs. They also expressed a sense of urgency to start bringing students back in person to begin their academic recovery and to support their social-emotional needs. But school districts need the state to release all the federal funds owed to them to address those needs.

“We’re going to need these funds to flow to schools so that we can support the boots on the ground and to support the students, and we worry that those funds [will] get diverted,” Brown said. “We’ve heard of a lot of plans to divert funds for various kinds of things. From our conversations with the U.S. Department of Education, these funds are supposed to be supplemental. They’re supposed to flow to K-12.”

School leaders and education advocates had feared the state would again use federal coronavirus relief funds to plug holes in the state’s budget, which is still a possibility with the rest of the federal stimulus funds from the December coronavirus relief act. Texas received $1.3 billion from last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and instead of supplementing schools’ budgets, the state sent the federal dollars to schools and reduced their share of state funds by similar amounts.

“Districts could have been in a much better position to offer support services for staff and students and families had that funding been used to supplement [budgets] the way the majority of the states in our country did,” Perez-Diaz said.

With the delayed release of the $11.2 billion, school districts are now on an “incredibly tight” deadline to gather the required input from community stakeholders to develop plans on how to spend the federal dollars, Perez-Diaz said. Additionally, the funds must be spent by September 2024, so districts may not have the capacity to get all the feedback they need.

“This shouldn’t be a politicized issue,” Perez-Diaz said. “We have to make sure that the youth that we’re investing in, whether that be through funds or other resource support, is really done in a way to ensure that we’re preparing them not only for the futures that exist right now, the future possibilities, but for those that don’t even exist yet.”

Educators know what to do to accelerate learning for students and get them back on track socially, emotionally, and academically, Spellings said. They have research-based practices they can implement, such as intensive summer school and tutoring sessions. But that work must begin now, she said.

“We’re wasting daylight, and that’s why these resources getting deployed immediately is so critical,” Spellings said. “Kids need to be in school this summer. We need to measure quickly and find out where they are. We need to provide the proper remedy to catch them up.”

Hernandez said he’s been talking with other superintendents to discuss the best practices for remediating learning loss and meeting students’ and staff members’ mental health needs. He also has been developing, along with the Edgewood ISD school board, public-private partnerships to ensure those needs are met. The district of roughly 9,000 students is shifting toward a year-round school system to help mitigate learning gaps created by the pandemic and summer break.

Like Hernandez, Ball and Toscano said they have been eagerly awaiting the federal funds so they can begin academic recovery and acceleration for students at a magnitude unlike ever before. Toscano said the infusion of money will help East Central ISD launch some new initiatives and help fund others.

“Education in Texas is an investment,” he said. “It is not an expense.”

School districts have been encouraging students to return to school in person because most students learn better in the classroom, but not all families are ready for their students to go back. Judson ISD, which has about 23,000 students, has about 60% of students in person right now, Ball said.

“It’s time to come back. We’re never going back to normal because we’re going back to better,” she said. “A lot of people think that the hard work has been done, but in all reality, the hard work is yet to come when everybody comes back to school.”

The superintendents agreed that they should be held accountable for the millions of dollars in federal aid they will receive and that they take that responsibility seriously. Toscano said school leaders must ensure there’s a “return” on these dollars that is reflected in students making academic, social, and emotion gains.

“Crises like these certainly reveal a lot about who we are as a system, as a community, as a people, and it always breeds innovation,” Toscano said. “Scarcity and uncertainty, it always breeds innovation, and that’s really what I’ve seen more of since last March in education than I’ve ever seen in the previous 24 years that I’ve been in education.”

The next events in the San Antonio Regional Education Forum Virtual Series will be held June 30 and Aug. 11. The June event will focus on teaching and learning in a pandemic, and the August event will center on higher education and workforce development.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.