How have state ed leaders prioritized academics and mental health in ESSER initiatives?

The pandemic exacerbated students’ academic and mental health struggles — but in developing recovery programs, states made several positive reforms. 

Those reforms include comprehensive tutoring initiatives, sophisticated data collection and analysis systems, and partnerships across government and nongovernment sectors, said state education leaders during the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 21.

Top education officials from Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois and other states talked about how their plans for recovery interventions had to be adjusted as pandemic impacts were better understood. They also discussed how they are looking ahead at the sustainability of pandemic initiatives once Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds run out.

In Tennessee, for example, Commissioner Penny Schwinn said a $1 billion state investment will help continue efforts funded by pandemic investments. But she emphasized the state is much more interested in programming efficiencies and less focused on securing more funding.  

Implementing response to intervention strategies, cultivating strong partnerships with higher education institutions, and improving high-dosage tutoring are a few of the structural improvements Tennessee is undertaking, Schwinn said.

“It’s less about the money and much more about how do we squeeze every single second of the minutes that we have with kids,” said Schwinn.

She invited critics of spending practices to volunteer their time to tutor students. “I wonder how many of those people are actually getting in classrooms and tutoring for two hours a week. It’s like I need you for two hours a week,” Schwinn said. “Come join us.”

Academic investments that work

Stephanie Siddens, Ohio’s interim superintendent of public instruction, said the state recorded pandemic-era dips in reading and math, as well as an increase in chronic absenteeism.

“Just knowing that children are not in school enough to receive the important instruction they need to recover is a big concern for us,” Siddens said.

To respond to needs, the state developed its Future Forward Ohio plan that prioritizes strategies for literacy, workforce readiness, student wellness and learning acceleration. The plan includes a grant program for colleges and universities to have teacher education candidates tutor K-12 students. The state has also created a list of vetted, high-quality tutoring programs that schools can use with local funding.

In Tennessee, Schwinn said, there is a high level of buy-in from districts for high-dosage tutoring, but the state’s goal of having a minimum of three students to one tutor has been more difficult to maintain. State legislation requires that high-dosage tutoring be provided for any child who is not proficient in reading in grades K-4, Schwinn added.

“We’re not investing in what doesn’t work.”

Penny Schwinn

Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Tracking academic progress is also a high priority area for the states. Siddens said in addition to Ohio’s own monitoring protocols, it also has formal external evaluations. In Tennessee, the state has partnered with universities to administer educator surveys in addition to other accountability efforts.
“We’re not investing in what doesn’t work,” said Schwinn. “We are in a very conservative state, and we’ve gotten more funding even with the federal funding, because the outcomes and the buy-in from our districts has been so high, but that has been very much driven by data. And I think districts are seeing that when they invest in these things that work, they’re getting the returns right away.”

Mental health supports for students and staff 

In addition to academic declines, many students experienced trauma, isolation and other hardships from the pandemic. Strains on students’ mental health began even before the global health crisis, experts have said.

In December 2020, Illinois launched The Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing, or REACH, initiative with federal relief dollars. The program trains educators, school mental health professionals and community members to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and address students’ social-emotional and mental health needs. 

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