Arkansas' most pressing priorities for the 2021-22 school year are student mental and emotional health and the loss of instructional time during the coronavirus pandemic, the state Department of Education has reported to the federal government.
"Most students, no matter the subgroup, experienced lapses in instruction during the 2020-21 school year for reasons such as chronic absenteeism, lack of engagement, and quarantine and isolation protocol," the Arkansas agency states in its plan for using federal covid-pandemic relief money.
The Arkansas plan -- one of 28 state plans submitted on time and posted last week on the U.S. Department of Education website -- responds to the federal agency's questions about how the Natural State is using its portion of the nearly $2 billion in relief money for elementary and secondary education.
That nearly $2 billion has been presented in three rounds since March 2020. All but a handful of Arkansas' 262 school districts or charter systems is receiving at least a $1 million in extraordinary federal funding, with the Little Rock district receiving the most -- about $99 million.
The earlier distributions have been used for purchase of personal protection equipment against the spread of the coronavirus; cleaning and sanitizing supplies; laptops and internet connectivity for students and educators; meals for students; employee covid-19 sick leave; online academic content; and digital learning management systems.
The third and largest round of federal funding -- the American Rescue Plan money -- amounts to $1.25 billion to Arkansas. Ninety percent of that is for school district use and 10% is set aside for state-level initiatives. School districts have to spend at least 20% to address lost instructional time or learning loss among their students.
The statewide initiatives described in Arkansas' newly submitted plan -- some of which are underway and some to be developed -- include:
• Expanded use of the SmartData Dashboard product to quickly compile student information on academics, discipline referrals and attendance rates from various sources into one online report, which can become an early alert to educators about students who at risk of failure and need intervention.
• Teacher academies offered this summer in partnership with universities to give teachers additional credentials in online instruction, computer science instruction and special education.
•Arkansas Tutoring Corps.
• Partnership with the Arkansas State University-affiliated Arkansas Out-of -School Network to distribute and oversee grants to after-school and summer programs that are sites for educational programming or tutoring as well as for social-emotional support programs.
• A continued partnership with the Arkansas PBS television network to provide educational programming and learning guides for elementary pupils featuring the state's former Teachers of the Year.
Still other initiatives include the expanded use of the professional learning communities model of teacher collaboration to address student achievement, the continued offering to districts of state-funded learning management systems, and access to high-quality instructional materials -- all according to Arkansas' 68-page plan.
"It really is a substantial amount of money and it can have a substantial positive impact," Ivy Pfeffer, the Elementary and Secondary Education Division's deputy commissioner, said Friday of the federal funding that is available to the districts and the state.
Pfeffer said the SmartData Dashboard product will help districts make good decisions about student academics and any support or wraparound services a student may need to be successful in school.
"As kids are coming back and things are shifting back to a normal type schedule, it is a way to intervene early, if necessary," she said.
The state's 15 education service cooperatives will be tapped to work with their member school systems to explain the benefits of the data system and to facilitate conversations among districts on how best to use it.
"It won't be a district just having to take on another tool," Pfeffer said."There will be a lot of support built in."
As for the Arkansas Tutoring Corps, Pfeffer said state leaders, in consultation with school systems, recognize the need for high-quality tutoring for students but also know that teachers can't be the only tutors.
"We wanted to take a strong, statewide approach to tutoring," she said. "We'll be building up a group of people who are at the ready, almost like the approach the National Guard takes -- people who are on ready should they be needed."
The state agency will rely in this case on Educational Renewal Zones -- which are partnerships with universities -- to determine how many tutors will be needed in different parts of the state and then work to connect trained tutors to the students in need.
The tutors, including college students planning on teaching careers, will be provided training in kindergarten-through-eighth-grade math and literacy skills and also in child and adolescent development.
The tutors will get stipends for being part of the tutoring corps and they also will be paid for the hours of tutoring time.
"Hopefully we will be able to get it launched this fall and it will be more of an after-school program and by next summer it all should be seamless," Pfeffer said.
The state will reserve a portion of its federal funding for use over time as new needs or emergencies arise, Pfeffer said.
The deadlines for spending the three rounds of funding vary, with the American Rescue Plan funding -- the third round -- to be expended by the end of 2024.
State plans for spending the federal funding were due earlier this month. The federal government already had released two-thirds, or $81 billion, of the $122 billion in American Rescue Plan funds for schools. The rest of the money is being held until the state plans are approved. That approval for Arkansas and all other state-submitted plans is pending.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement last week that the "state plans make it clear that the American Rescue Plan is providing much needed support to states and districts as they work to not only bring students back to in-person learning, but also to address inequities made worse by the pandemic and make sure every student has the social, emotional, and mental health support they need to create a strong foundation for academic success."
Arkansas' more than 470,000 students had access to in-person, on-campus instruction since last August but most states did not offer on-campus instruction until late in the school year.
The statement from Cardona and the U.S. Department of Education last week highlighted Arkansas' proposed Tutoring Corps for students with the greatest learning losses. Arkansas was also noted for its encouraging school districts to hold on-site vaccination clinics for students.
Highlights from other states included a plan in Kansas to use some of the federal funding to offset the admission costs for students at museums, zoos, state parks and the Kansas State Fair.
Oklahoma is using federal money to to hire school counselors, mental health professionals and licensed "recreational therapists" as a way to lower the ratio of students per counselor.
New Mexico is using a portion of its money to partner with local municipalities to provide summer internships -- or work-based learning -- for middle and high school students .
Like Arkansas has a spending plan, so must school districts develop and post to their websites their plans for spending the federal money. That deadline is Aug. 15.
"We want them to accelerate learning," Pfeffer said about the districts and their plans. "We want them to make decisions that are in line with the needs of their kids."