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SC schools splitting $2 billion in COVID aid, teachers hope it's 'transformational'

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State Superintendent Molly Spearman (right) visits with art teacher Shari Schultz at Matilda F. Dunston Elementary School on Aug. 13, 2020, in North Charleston. South Carolina's K-12 public schools will share $2 billion from the latest federal COVID-19 aid package. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's K-12 public schools will share $2 billion from the latest federal COVID-19 aid package, on top of the more than $1 billion already allocated that largely hasn't been spent, according to the state Department of Education. 

The spending package Congress passed this month represents "the largest influx of federal dollars for public education in our state’s history," state Superintendent Molly Spearman said March 17. 

The money must be spent to "keep our schools safely open and address the immediate and long-term impacts of COVID-19 that our students and school communities are faced with," she added. 

But Spearman has little say in how the bulk of the money's spent.

Of the $2.1 billion the federal government sends to her agency — bypassing the Legislature altogether — at least 90 percent of it must be distributed to local school districts. 

How much each will receive is still being determined.

Whatever that share is, locally elected school boards have until September 2023 to spend it.

And they have wide discretion on where the money goes toward meeting the law's broad goals of reopening schools, keeping them open safely and addressing students' social, emotional, mental and academic needs. Twenty percent of districts' share must go toward addressing learning loss, however they decide to do that. 

The $3 billion allocated in federal aid over the last year is more than three times above what the federal government normally sends South Carolina's K-12 schools annually.

"It’s obviously transformational and generational amounts of money. This is an absolute game changer," said Patrick Kelly with the Palmetto State Teachers Association. "Teachers hope to see it invested wisely in ways that will pay benefits both short and long term."

That means not only catching students up with intensive tutoring and summer learning, but also funding innovations so that achievement leapfrogs where it was before the pandemic, he said.  

"We would love to see districts get creative and do aspirational things we’ve said for years would be good," Kelly said. "This gives us the opportunity to put those goals into practice."

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Examples include pairing a first-year teacher with a veteran teacher in the classroom and offering extended learning in after-school programs, he said, which would replicate the model that Sherman Financial founder Ben Navarro launched in 2014 in a public-private partnership with Charleston County. 

Teachers also want to see long-term building maintenance issues addressed, particularly on new heating-and-air-conditioning systems in old schools that have done patchwork fixes year after year, contributing to mold issues causing health problems long before COVID-19. 

Fixing that problem for good would fall under the federal law's goal of "improving indoor air quality." 

Spearman has encouraged districts to do that.

"It’s one of the first times ever we’ve had funding available to work on these problems," she told reporters last month, acknowledging the old ventilation systems are why some teachers have been reluctant to return full-time to classrooms. 

At the time, she was addressing the $900 million allocated to South Carolina's schools by Congress' last aid package in December. Districts must submit plans to Spearman's agency before they can spend any of their share. Plans are still coming in for that round, said Spearman's spokesman, Ryan Brown. 

At least some of the $195 million Congress sent to school districts last spring also remains unspent. Districts' quarterly reports to get reimbursed from that pot are not yet due, he said.

What teachers don't want the money spent on is "the new flashy product that promises immediate results with minimal work," Kelly said. "Those don't work." 

But they know the temptation is there, and that administrators and school board members are already getting bombarded by companies eager to sell them their products.

"Historic amounts of money are going to flow into the hands of districts without having to be managed at the state level, and we’re excited about that, but also worried about it," said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association. "In some of these districts, we worry how they spend their money."

     

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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