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Families & the Community

Parents: Schools Haven’t Sought Our Input on How to Spend Billions in COVID Aid

By Evie Blad — September 29, 2021 4 min read
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A majority of parents responding to a new poll said they have heard little about how their schools are using new federal COVID-19 relief aid and that leaders have not consulted parents in how those funds should be spent.

The results of the poll—released Wednesday by the education advocacy organization the National Parents Union—come as states, districts, and schools weigh how to spend an unprecedented surge of funds to help students attend school safely during the pandemic and recover from interruptions it has prompted for three consecutive school years.

The stakes are high, parent activists say. If districts fail to engage families, they may miss out on insights that can help them best serve students. If they seek meaningful input, they could strengthen bonds of trust with parents that could serve them for years to come.

K-12 Relief Funds 101

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Dezirae Espinoza wears a face mask while holding a tube of cleaning wipes as she waits to enter Garden Place Elementary School in Denver for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic.
David Zalubowski/AP

“It seems to be a slow ooze back into the status quo,” said National Parents Union President Keri Rodrigues, who has met with parents around the country during the pandemic. “For districts around the nation who have received an extraordinary amount of resources during this critical time, it’s heartbreaking for parents.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s regulations for the American Rescue Plan, which provided $122 billion for state and local education systems, require leaders to seek input from a variety of groups, including parents, disability rights advocates, and educators, in making their plans. Schools also received $13.2 billion through the CARES Act and $54.3 billion from a supplemental appropriations act in December 2020.

The poll of 1,006 parents of public school students was conducted Sept. 9-13 by research group Echelon Insights. Fifty-six percent of respondents said they have not seen or heard anything about how funds were being spent in their child’s school or classroom.

While 56 percent of respondents said parents should be involved in deciding how the funds should be used, 67 percent reported their children’s schools had not asked them for input or feedback in their plans. Among respondents with an annual income below $50,000, just 17 percent said schools had sought parent input, compared with 28 percent of parents with incomes above $75,000.

“The number one question I get [from schools] is ‘How do we get parents to better engage?’” Rodrigues said. “There is always this lip service ... The fact of the matter is parents and families are human beings. If you want to move from transactional relationships to transformative relationships, it’s all about building trust.”

Parent advocates have seen barriers to voicing their opinions, Rodrigues said. Some school boards, for example, require members of the public to sign up several days in advance of meetings to speak during comment periods, she said. Parents have also called for opportunities to provide input online and family surveys that are translated into multiple languages to allow broad participation. The National Parents Union has also created a national campaign to urge parents to “disrupt the status quo” at school board meetings.

Ensuring meaningful outreach with families

As schools plan to address learning disruptions caused by remote learning during the pandemic, the Education Department recommends outreach to parents and other groups that is “ongoing, meaningful, collaborative, and accessible to individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency.”

“This engagement should begin early in the decision-making process and should be ongoing and collaborative,” the agency says in its COVID-19 handbook for schools. “This will help to select strategies designed for systemic change that can build buy-in and capacity at the local level for the long-term.”

For example, an Oak Park, Ill., initiative called Come Together has hosted “family dinners” with parents, teachers, and school staff, the Education Department resource said, setting a foundation for collecting input about things like relief aid. Come Together brought those activities online, hosting video chat conversations during the pandemic.

School administrators have reported several concerns in deciding how to spend money. Staffing shortages across multiple sectors have made it difficult for them to launch tutoring, counseling and student support programs and strained their core services, like transportation. The aid will eventually run out, and they don’t want to create a “funding cliff” by adopting longer term programs they can’t sustain on their own. And the changing nature of the pandemic, including the surge of the more contagious Delta variant, has caused some leaders to change course in their spending plans.

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, has assembled a panel of 30 education leaders to help administrators determine how to best spend relief aid and how to seek community input for their plans.

In an AASA survey, school administrators reported some spending priorities that overlapped with ideas parents supported in the National Parent Union survey, including technology and broadband access.

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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