North Dakota education department plans to spend relief funds to address pandemic learning loss

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Throughout the pandemic, the Department of Public Instruction has received about $475 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds through the three rounds of COVID-19 federal relief packages passed by Congress. The largest sum was awarded in March as part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill from which the Department of Public Instruction received about $305 million.

Ninety percent of the $305 million is required to go directly to North Dakota school districts, while about $30 million goes to the Department of Public Instruction to spend on statewide efforts to address educational and emotional struggles some students experienced during the pandemic.

In a 64-page plan, the Department of Public Instruction detailed the impacts students faced and the local and statewide efforts to help students. Based on input from stakeholders and districts, the Department of Public Instruction plans to spend more than half of its funds to address the loss of instructional time caused by the pandemic, according to the plan.

The department is seeking the public’s input on its plan and is also taking suggestions from the public on how it should use the money.

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“This is a historic investment in North Dakota education, and it is important for our families, educators, and other stakeholders to have an opportunity for their voices to be heard,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said in a statement.

To provide additional instruction and tutoring, the Department of Public Instruction aims to expand summer school and pay for online tools and educational programs to help students in reading, writing and math.

While North Dakota was in the thick of the pandemic last year, almost all schools continued with in-person instruction. Even though much of the school year for many districts was still conducted face-to-face, the Department of Public Instruction said students were still impacted educationally and emotionally by the pandemic.

The “most critical and widespread” issues caused by the pandemic that North Dakota schools face are COVID-19 fatigue, learning gaps and staffing shortages.

The pandemic exacerbated gaps that already existed in education for students of color and students with special needs, the department said in its plan.

The Department of Public Instruction is planning to partner with the Hunt Institute, an organization that works with state leaders nationwide to better education, to conduct “equity audits” at four school districts in the state. The goal of the audits and of the Hunt Institute is “to support districts to understand the extent to which their policies, practices, and behaviors either erase or exacerbate inequity.”

While the Department of Public Instruction knows many students statewide endured learning loss from the pandemic, it is still looking to understand in which areas learning loss is the most significant. By Dec. 1, all North Dakota school districts must submit a report to the department that details student learning loss in the district and how it used the federal COVID-19 relief funds to close those gaps.

The public can provide input on how to spend the relief funds until June 7 by emailing [email protected] or calling Laurie Matzke, the assistant superintendent of public instruction, at 701-328-2284.

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at [email protected]

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