When the federal government announced COVID-19 relief money for schools, officials hoped to use the extra funds for more than just day-to-day operations.

One Fort Worth charter school wanted to add more hands-on experiences — like a farm — and field trips.

Although much of the funding helped accomplish some goals, a few school officials still were disappointed.

A lot of the $5.8 million the charter received went to operational expenses to offset less money received from the state than in other years, Newman Academy Grants and Compliance Coordinator Cherith West said.

Schools in Texas receive state funding based on average daily attendance, but the pandemic caused some students to stay home sick or quarantine, dropping the daily attendance. As a result, schools received less funding.

Charter schools were allowed to apply for the Elementary and Secondary School Relief funds — and 10 Tarrant County charter schools got about $31.7 million — but they did not have as much of an impact as school officials wanted.

What are the relief funds?

The relief funds are a grant program the federal government established in March 2020 to combat the learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic in schools. Schools in Texas could apply with the Texas Education Agency for a series of grants to use in campuses.

Schools could use the grants for a variety of expenses, such as coordinating with local health departments to combat COVID-19, giving funds to principals to address needs within the schools, field trips, professional development, technology, sanitization tools, mental health services and more.

However, the money could not be used for debt service, housing or sponsoring a conference, subsidizing or offsetting executive salaries of people who are not employed by the district or Texas Education Agency, expenditures related to teacher/faculty unions or associations and bonuses or merit pay unless specifically related to disruptions or closures from COVID-19.

What did Tarrant County charters get?

The charter that received the most funds is Premier High Schools, getting about $14.8 million. According to applications the Report received from the Texas Education Agency, the charter wanted funds for staff — specifically nursing — and technology, such as hotspots to provide WiFi.

It also asked for funds for other supplies, training for teachers, planning and coordinating long-term closures, summer school, activities to address unique needs of low-income, disabled or English second language students, providing meals in a closure, and after school programs, among other needs.

Other schools asked for less, like Westlake Academy, which received $497,121. The campus asked for funds to purchase supplies to sanitize facilities, supplemental after school programs, addressing learning loss, operation costs and staffing costs.

Chapel Hill Academy received about $3.3 million, and CEO and Superintendent Ashley Elgin said it mostly covered what officials hoped to achieve.

The school wanted to create a plan that specifically addressed reading and math learning loss and behavior, Elgin said. But the school also wanted to address behavioral and emotional support for students.

“And, fortunately, we went into the plan, trying to solve those problems,” she said. “And the funding actually has done miraculous things for our ability to really tackle those concerns.”

The charter’s clear application for the intention of the funds helped the school with rolling out exactly what educators wanted, Chief of Education Services Victoria Sendejo said.

Some of the curriculum the state provided in reading and math is free, Sendejo said, which allowed the charter campus to stretch funds for teachers to participate in an after school tutoring program for students who did not do well on last year’s assessments.

Other parents found out about the program and, even if their children passed state tests, still asked to enroll them so they could improve. Sendejo said they did not turn any student away and also were able to provide meals for the kids staying late for tutoring.

The school wanted to use those funds not only for tutoring, but also to address other issues it noticed in students post pandemic.

“When the kids came back to campus, we noticed that their behaviors were quite different than they were when we left for COVID,” Elgin said. “There were a lot more behaviors associated with anxiety, difficulty concentrating and difficulty respecting peers and those sorts of things, to the point that the social worker was overwhelmed.”

The first step to addressing these concerns was making a behavior intervention plan, which Elgin said included someone to oversee everything going on with the students and then three behavior interventionists under that person. 

If there was a particular concern with a student the team could prepare how to address it and implement it, she said. That allowed the social worker to spend time on social and emotional learning to help with positive behavior.

For example, students typically learn in kindergarten how to behave in school and work with others, Elgin said. Because of the pandemic, some students never learned those skills and were in structured classroom settings for the first time. To help these students, Elgin said, the school would start with creating classroom activities.

Students who couldn’t “rise to the occasion” and struggled were able to spend time with the social worker for behavior intervention so they learn the structure of a classroom, a process Elgin said parents are involved in.  

West at Newman Academy said school officials did not get to use as much of the money outside of operational costs as they wanted. They were able to spend some of the funds on laptops, Chromebooks and other technology, she said.

Red tape limited what the money could go to, West said. At Newman Academy, some of the money went to academic software and funding summer school to address learning loss.

The school also is exploring some teacher retention measures to use the money on, she said. But they hoped to add more hands-on learning experiences, like field trips and an animal farm.

When using federal funds, West said, it’s cumbersome because the school has to put out a bid and can only work with authorized vendors. Some of the parents ended up coming together to buy materials and help build a garden.

“This is stuff we would have loved to do through grant funds,” she said. “But we found ways to make it happen.”

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. 

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Kristen Barton

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...