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Union pipe filters form local "354" working for Huckestein Mechanical of Pittsburgh (left to right) Jim Vasbinder, Adam Toms and apprentice Ian McCleary install new air conditioning pipes at Greater Johnstown High School inside the Chiller room on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Conemaugh Valley title math teacher Michelle Miller said education funding sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic is easing the pain of dealing with the impact of the coronavirus on classrooms and learning.

That’s thanks to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding, school officials said.

With the extra financial boost, schools are able to fill supplemental positions or make infrastructure upgrades that otherwise would have been postponed.

“It’s amazing to have resources available because teachers, as much as students, are floundering because it’s overwhelming to all of us,” Miller said.

One way Conemaugh Valley used its roughly $3 million allotment was to hire an intervention specialist for the elementary, to focus on younger grades and reading.

“The first thing we tried to do out of the gate with ESSER ... is have a position here at the elementary ... to look at where the gaps are,” Superintendent Shane Hazenstab said.

Once those deficiencies are identified, the specialist will work with classroom teachers to address need areas.

Online tutoring is also available to the students now. District leaders have increased the social worker service from three days per week to five in each building.

“That’s a big one,” Hazenstab said.

‘A nice resource’

Other ways Conemaugh Valley is using the funding include the purchase of technology, such as student Chromebooks, Spring Math programming, establishment of a title math program and implementation of a multi-tiered system of support that is set for the fall.

“We’re playing a lot of catch-up,” Miller said.

Her colleague, Jen Stiffler, the title reading educator and federal programs coordinator, said it’s “just nice to have support for the kids and the teachers so we can all work together to get them where they need to be.”

Conemaugh Valley is considering an upgrade to the high school’s HVAC system, which is either original to the late 1960s building or at least at the end of its life, Business Manager Eric Miller said.

He added that this project qualifies for use of the ESSER funds because it deals with air quality.

The school board has approved an evaluation of the system.

“(The money has) given us the opportunity to address some of the challenges that have come up during a year that was unlike any,” Hazenstab said.

“From that standpoint, it’s been a nice resource.”

Eric Miller added that ESSERS dollars provided a chance to take care of some projects they weren’t able to address before.

The HVAC project is a large expenditure for work that has to be done all at once, not in chunks, adminstrators said – meaning that project might not make the cut in a normal year.

‘Lots of projects’

Greater Johnstown School District has made use of its roughly $47 million allotment by taking on infrastructure upgrades that had been previously put off, such as adding air conditioning to the high school.

“We had a laundry list of things that had not been addressed,” Superintendent Amy Arcurio said.

Money from the ESSER program is earmarked to fix the roof at the elementary, pay for installation of new doors at that school and help install HVAC at the high and middle schools as well as reconstruction of the boilers at the high school.

Much of that work is through a contract the board signed with The Efficiency Network in 2021.

“We still have lots and lots of projects that got passed over,” Arcurio said.

Samantha Williams, district business manager, said that includes fixing parking lots and sidewalks at the Greater Johnstown properties.

The administration is also using the funding to help with learning loss, technological upgrades and cover costs to keep students, staff and faculty safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, nine instructional support tutors were hired through The Learning Lamp.

Williams said the money from the three ESSER installments, which is provided in intervals not as one lump sum, is tracked “dollar for dollar” as it’s spent and at this time the plan is to spend one-third of it annually throughout the next three years.

She said that the situation is stressful because she knows the funds will arrive eventually but money is already being spent.

Administrators said they want to hire additional staff to help with the overburdened teachers, but that wasn’t possible because there’s no way to cover the long-term commitment.

‘Worth the investment’

With the extra $6.7 million in funds, Somerset Area School District has added 13 teachers for the Somerset Select Virtual Academy.

“It has been well worth the investment,” said Trevor Anderson, Somerset director of curriculum and technology.

Superintendent Krista Mathias said that even if a few students who had left the district for cyber schools return, it’ll be enough of a savings for Somerset Area to keep the dedicated online teachers long-term.

Some of those virtual teachers have provided intervention work at the elementary too.

“We’re really maximizing part of the funding in that way,” Mathias said.

By using the funds to implement this program as well others, such as replacement of the automatic door locks and PA system, the district has reduced budget stressors for the future that otherwise would have required money from the general fund or a new bond.

“We want to make sure we have cutting-edge technology, especially for safety,” Mathias added.

That extends to the district’s 1:1 initiative. “All 2,000 students have an iPad,” Anderson said.

Mathias said it’s “very important” that, similar to other grants, the funds aren’t used to balance the budget.

Arnold Nadonley, Richland superintendent, shared the same message.

He stressed that these funds aren’t to fill budget holes but in some instances, such as with technological purchases, the money has helped defer some of the local tax burden.

Upgrades and taxes

Richland received $3.4 million through the ESSER program and has focused the spending on technology, such as the new state-of-the-art camera system that was installed throughout the district

Two long-term substitutes were hired to fill in for teachers who were converted to academic coaches for remote learning – one at each building.

“That’s certainly something we could not have done without the stimulus money,” Nadonley said.

Funding was also used to offset transportation costs for extracurricular programs, establish online tutoring and expand summer schooling.

“The kids are coming to us further and further behind,” elementary Principal Gregg Wilson said.

According to a breakdown of spending released by the district, a large portion of the money was spent on a sick-day incentive program that repaid educators for teaching remote classes before and after the contractual school day.

That was followed by the camera system, student performance software, purchase of student Chromebooks and classroom size reduction, which included the hiring of an additional teacher as a long-term substitute for the 2021-22 school year because of an increased kindergarten enrollment.

“The position is planned for multiple years to follow the grade level or be placed in another high enrollment grade level,” the document says.

As of February, Richland has about $1.4 million left to spend before the deadline of fall 2024.

“We would have been raising taxes without this money,” Nadonley said.

Impact of remote learning

Westmont Hilltop has opted to use the money to focus on several categories.

“There has been a substantial investment in technology improvements to enable remote learning during the pandemic and maintain the instruction improvement made during this process with a consistent student learning management system,” Superintendent Thomas Mitchell said. “Additionally, all students K-12 and teachers have access to the appropriate technology needed to access remote learning.”

ESSER funding has also been spent to identify learning loss using student data, then addressing skill deficiencies with targeted interventions, which includes creation of a K-12 data coordinator position to focus on statistical assessments of student achievement and growth.

Another use of the money is the addition of learning opportunities, such as after-school tutoring and summer learning that “focuses on the whole child including academic, wellness, and social and emotional learning.”

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5054. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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