The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the lives of nearly everyone in the world these past 15 months – students included.
Attending school was a virtual experience and when students returned to the classroom, it was with masks and social distancing. Through it all, the students managed to persevere, but many did not achieve the grades they normally would have.
To help schools rebound from the pandemic, Congress allocated a $1.9 trillion package of assistance measures which included $122 billion for the American Rescue Plan [ARP] Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief [ESSER] Fund.
Pocahontas County Schools Superintendent Terrence Beam reported last week that Pocahontas County will receive a portion of this funding to be used for “learning loss” – ways to help students improve their grades and receive academic intervention to get them on grade level.
“We’ll be receiving $3.4 million to be spent now through September 2024,” Beam said. “Anytime the government gives you money, there are always stipulations as to how you can spend it. They put labels on things you have to spend it on.
“One of the major focuses that this money has to be directed toward is called learning loss,” he continued. “What we are using some of this money for is for extra classroom aides for K-5 schools – so our three elementary schools will be each getting a new aide to help on whatever grade level they need them. The next thing is, we’re hiring nine interventionists to work in the schools.”
Each school will get two interventionists except Hillsboro Elementary School, which will have one due to its student population.
Beam said a technology specialist will also be hired with this funding. The position will serve all five schools and will help with all the extra computers and devices which were added to the classrooms during the pandemic.
Also addressing the learning loss issues, the funding will be used to fund summer school.
“The third part of the learning loss is the continuation of our Communities In Schools program which is at Marlinton Middle School, Green Bank and Pocahontas County High School,” Beam said. “These are three individuals that are hired to work with the parents to help them help their children. It was funded last year by the state, but after that, we have to pick up the funding ourselves. We are allowed to use some of this money instead of county money to fund these positions for another year.”
While addressing academic issues is the most important role of the Pocahontas County Board of Education, there is also the issue of aging buildings and needed upgrades to make the facilities safe for students.
Fortunately, the remaining ARP ESSER funding can be used for some upgrades.
“There are a few requirements for that, also,” Beam said. “It has to deal with air quality, HVAC systems, windows and doors, those kinds of things. We got reports from the state department – they sent people around to all the schools to test air quality and it was determined that Green Bank and Marlinton Middle School were the two schools most in need of air quality improvement.”
While the funding is only going toward two schools for air conditioning and HVAC systems, Beam said he wants to assure the community that the other schools will be receiving upgrades as well, just through other funding sources.
As reported at a previous board meeting, Marlinton Elementary School is in need of a new sprinkler system, air conditioning and a new roof.
Through its agreement with Wendel Energy Systems which is replacing all lighting in the schools with LED lights, the board is using energy saving funds to replace the sprinkler system at MES. Instead of waiting for the savings to kick in three years from now, Beam said the board borrowed funds to start the project immediately.
“We do not have to wait,” he said. “On one of our board agendas in May or June, we signed an agreement with Pendleton Community Bank and we borrowed money from them to do that. We will use the energy savings to pay the loan. The sprinkler system couldn’t wait any longer.”
As for the new roof at MES, Beam said the board will apply for a Major Improvement Project [MIP] through the West Virginia School Building Authority [SBA] for the summer of 2022.
“There is no MIP money this year,” Beam explained. “They are suggesting that we use this money that we’re being given by the American Rescue Plan to repair our buildings, so they’re not giving out any money this year.”
Although the board has to wait a year to apply for the MIP, it is going to apply for Needs Project this winter to address the air conditioning needs in the rest of the schools.
Beam and members of the board staff presented the ARP ESSER funding proposal to the West Virginia Department of Education last week and said the department was optimistic that the entire proposal will be approved and funded.
“They said ‘we see nothing in your application that will not be approved,’” Beam said. “The next step for us is to get all of this finalized, get the state to put their stamp on it and then we put it on our website. We will let the public know when it will be there. We have to put it on the website for at least two weeks for public comments, just like we do our school calendar.”
Beam said he wanted to ensure the community that all five schools are receiving upgrades and all of these projects are made possible without the use of a levy or bond from the community.
“When we get opportunities we want to take advantage of them,” he said. “If we get air conditioning for Marlinton Middle School and Green Bank, and then we go to the SBA this winter – we’re not asking for five million dollars. We’re asking for two and a half million dollars. That’s a big difference.
“That’s what they’re going to look at,” he continued. “‘What did you do with your ESSER money?’”
Beam explained that if the SBA cannot fund the Needs Project which includes electrical upgrades and HVAC for three schools, they will take what they get.
“We’ll say we’ll do two,” he said. “I’m sure we’d do Hillsboro and Marlinton Elementary because the high school is already air conditioned. It’s not great. It needs repaired. It needs improved. We’ve got to do something with that, too.”
It may take several years to complete, but Beam said he is hopeful that all the projects will be funded and plans will get underway to start upgrades to the schools in the fall.