NORWALK, Conn. — The COVID-19 pandemic has created many additional challenges for students and families that the school system will have to address, school officials said, in addition to the annual challenges, such as enrollment and state funding.
To address some of these student-related issues such as learning loss, social emotional challenges, and other family-related challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, the district would like to add supports, personnel, and resources, but may have to make cuts to meet the budget put forward by the Common Council, Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Alexandra Estrella said.
The Common Council’s budgetary cap would cause the district to reduce its budget by about $5.5 million, if City department budgets remain as-is. School officials laid out some potential ideas for how to do that at its Wednesday meeting of the Finance Committee.
NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said he hopes to make the case to the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation this week that if the City could increase their allocation to the district about 1.2%, some cuts could be avoided. That bump in funding plus the federal dollars that the district will be receiving through the latest round of stimulus could cover the district’s needs at least through the next two years.
School staff have also taken on an enormous amount of work and risk to educate the students during this time, and making cuts would be difficult, Estrella said.
“Our teachers have spent an enormous amount of time, experienced an enormous amount of risk in engaging in the continuous learning of our children,” she said. “And now we have to tell them, ‘Hey, teachers, paraeducators, principals, and all of the above, you did great, but now we have to cut all of these folks, because … we are not fully funding the school system in the way that we need to, so that you can continue to do the great work that you’ve done in the midst of this pandemic.”
Estrella said that sometimes the discussion around funding can get misunderstood because people hear the district is getting extra funding, but don’t realize that the funding is aimed at addressing new needs and challenges caused by the pandemic — not to help cover existing costs.
“I think that the conversation has gotten very confusing for people because they fail to understand that the reason the additional resources are not coming in as a result of ‘just because,’” she said. “It’s because we actually needed to enhance the programs that we currently have to ensure that our students kind of get back up to date where they left off, before actually moving forward to be in a better place than what they’ve been where they were left off pre-pandemic.”
Dealing with learning loss, trauma, and a lack of social emotional development
Estrella said that to help students have a “speedy recovery from the things that they have lost,” particularly in reading, writing, and mathematics, there needs to be additional resources to help them gain those skills back. To do so, the district is aiming to try and meet the needs of each student.
“It’s really important to preface the importance of scaffolded interventions, and really looking at where our students are, and what are the supports that they need and providing those differentiated supports across the district in a variety of ways,” she said. “But that requires an array of resources, because now we’re talking about differentiating the learning program for students based on what they need, as a result of what they have lost.”
Hamilton said that this is where some of the federal funding could come in to provide math and reading specialists to help students address some of that learning loss.
“We think there are some things that our budget next year that are related to COVID, that we think we can make a case – so for instance, the math specialists and literacy specialists,” he said. “Now those are positions that frankly, the district needs those positions permanently … but we think we can make a case that says in a COVID environment where we believe students have not had the same experiences that they would have had over the last 12 months, and that the learning loss that we believe is present, that those positions are especially important right now.”
Estrella also stressed the need to have interactive learning through project-based and hands-on activities, given children spent much of the last year behind screens, and having them interact more with other students.
Those interactions can also help address some of the social emotional skills the students have lost by not being able to be around their classmates for a full year, Estrella said. But, she added that some students have greater needs that will need to be addressed.
“That’s where the social emotional component plays in and having an adequate number of social workers and guidance counselors available to provide those additional interventions and also support teachers around training (such as) how to better infuse social emotional learning practices into the day-to-day work that they’re doing,” she said.
The district is also keeping an eye on what resources, such as additional specialists and interventions, might be necessary for specific populations, such as students in special education and multilingual learners.
“The pandemic has highlighted the inequities within our society, and we have a responsibility as an education system to make sure we mitigate a lot of that, she said.
How many students will enroll next year?
One of the biggest variables the district will face for this upcoming school year is how many students will be enrolled. Estrella and Hamilton said they’re expecting enrollment numbers to increase again next year particularly after looking at a few different groups of students who could be enrolling/re-enrolling – students who became disengaged during the previous year, students who were homeschooled by their parents at least for this past year, students who are new to the area, and students of about preschool and kindergarten age who chose not to enroll this past year.
Each group has different challenges and needs.
For example, the district has started a Twilight program to help re-engage some of the students, particularly those who stopped attending school due to pandemic-related circumstances, Estrella said.
“We know that students that have become disengaged because of different life circumstances in that they’ve had to work to help the families address some of the economic loss that they’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic, or their other life-changing factors like they have to engage in childcare, and maybe the care of others as a result of illness associated with COVID,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that they had differentiated supports to meet their needs as a result of the challenges that have been created in the pandemic. And we want to make sure that we can continue providing those supports in the next academic school year.”
Estrella’s also heard from other families who said that they were “going to engage in home instruction this year,” but planned to rejoin next school year.
“So those students are not accounted for necessarily, in terms of the enrollment numbers, but are students that we have been keeping track of, because we anticipate they will be back once the pandemic starts to dwindle,” she said.
Estrella said they’re also looking at using some of the federal funding to bring in personnel to help reach out to families who have become disengaged, to get an understanding of what their struggles and challenges are and see if they can connect them with resources within in the district or community partners to address some of the needs.
She said this helped to highlight the need for a Welcome Center, which was a part of the district’s initial funding request, so that there would be a “a hub where we have all the essential services in one place for families.”
Hamilton said that he plans to present the district’s proposal of a 3.2% overall budgetary increase from last year to this year – up from the CFO’s recommendation of 2% – to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on Tuesday. After that, there will be public hearings on the budget, followed by the approval of a tentative budget in late March/early April, before the final budget is sent the first week of May.
In addition to navigating the current school year budget, Hamilton said that he is keeping an eye on “the cliff” coming in two years when the federal stimulus dollars are no longer included in the budget.
“We are very concerned about the cliff – the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds can be spent over the course of the next two school years, and after that, the ESSER funds go away,” he said. “And so what it means is if it’s an item that you expect is going to need to continue in the budget, it suggests you’re going to need to put it in the local operating budget at that point. So we are concerned about the cliff that we’re going to face by putting things in ESSER, but we have to do what we have to do, obviously, to provide the services that our students need.”