California schools received $60 billion in one-time funding to address COVID-19 disruptions to education—about half each from state and from federal programs. Last week, PPIC researcher Julien Lafortune outlined the range of programs that provided stimulus dollars and the key areas where districts spent their funds; coauthor Bruce Fuller, professor at UC Berkeley, then discussed district strategies for learning recovery with a panel of education leaders.
After the pandemic, test scores had fallen sharply across all grades, sinking well below expected trends. Lafortune explained that while stimulus programs distributed funding in a manner that highly correlated to districts that had scored lowest on state exams or that had been lagging before the pandemic, the link with pandemic learning losses was weaker. “Funds were better suited to address prior achievement needs than actual learning losses,” Lafortune said, noting that learning losses were widespread across districts.
In the first year of federal relief, schools dedicated money to health and technology, safety, and nutrition; more recent money has addressed learning loss along with mental health and operational needs. State dollars, in particular, have funded interventions such as extended learning and strengthened student supports.
Early stimulus dollars often went into efforts to return to in-person instruction. Ed Manansala, the county superintendent of schools for El Dorado County, highlighted the ways in which schools applied funds to the different layers of instruction demanded by the pandemic, through remote and hybrid strategies.
“There are two parallel conversations going on,” Fuller said, citing the challenges posed by the pandemic and opportunities created by unprecedented funding. “The academic side and the severity of learning loss […] and the revolutionary shift in holistic development.”
Using stimulus funding, districts could advance a whole student approach, which brings together academic and social emotional learning. Moisés Aguirre serves as superintendent of the Sweetwater Unified High School District, which made progress on this comprehensive approach to recovery through partnerships that helped educators build their knowledge base.
“A destigmatization of mental health came out of the pandemic,” Aguirre said. Many schools established wellness centers for students, and these sites now “offer the supports that students need so they are safe from a different perspective, not just a physical aspect but also a psychological aspect.” Meanwhile, along with setting up wellness centers for staff, professional development in the era of pandemic recovery promotes training around social emotional learning, which gives educators the tools to help students manage academic anxiety.
Such holistic approaches, however, are limited by funding and staffing. Close to two-thirds of relief funds have been spent as of June 2023, while districts have until September 2024 to use remaining dollars. Mary Briggs, senior director for Research and Education Policy Development for the California School Boards Association, stressed that schools must be strategic in the final push through funds, especially as fiscal uncertainty looms for California and enrollment numbers continue to drop.
For Briggs, two strategies will help districts make the most of the funding that remains: examining the available data to make sure schools have the resources they need, and community engagement—that is, learning what community members themselves identify as their needs to move forward.