COVID Cuts Slash Laptops, Summer School, After-School


The Cleveland school district, one of the poorest and largest recipients of federal COVID relief cash in the country, may soon slash summer school, after-school and a program providing laptops for every student as the flow of aid ends this summer.

Those initiatives, created to help the high-poverty district’s students after schools closed during the pandemic, are among the highest-profile cuts out of $91 million proposed by new district CEO Warren Morgan.

More cuts are expected for the 2025-26 school year.

Other proposals to cover the loss of an additional $12,000 per student in COVID aid also include ending a decade-long experiment of year-round classes in some schools.

“We got almost $500 million in COVID relief dollars from the federal government that allowed us to do really extraordinary things during an extraordinary period of time,” Morgan said as he announced his plan. “Those dollars go away, creating a little bit of this cliff.. in the financial situation that we’re in.”

A Burbio ranking of aid under the largest of several COVID relief programs placed Cleveland with the third-highest per-student grants of big cities in the country, after Detroit and Philadelphia.

The exact details of cuts will be set over the next few months. More cuts are expected for the 2025-26 school year.

But the broad plan for cuts outlined by Morgan and which the school board voted on Tuesday, February 27, is Cleveland’s first public attempt to sort out which pandemic programs are worth keeping and what older efforts must be cut as a tradeoff.

Efforts funded by “outsized” federal COVID aid to the high-poverty district will be cut

Cleveland is not alone in having to make cuts as the $190 billion infusion the federal government gave schools through relief grants known as CARES, ESSER and ARPA run out.

But both the financial boost from pandemic aid, and now the crash, is far more dramatic for high-poverty districts like Cleveland, which has the highest child poverty rate in the country among big cities.

For many districts, COVID funding was an outsized percentage of their budget.

Because the aid formula sent more money to high-poverty districts than affluent ones, the pandemic grants gave the neediest students more help with tutoring, laptops, better ventilation, mental health and other programs to catch up from lost school time.

The Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University reported in the fall that high-poverty districts received four times as much COVID aid as low-poverty ones. The Associated Press estimated that Cleveland received more than $12,000 per student, though enrollment swings the last few years make exact numbers impossible.

“For many of those districts, it made up an outsized percentage of their usual budget, which we think from an equity perspective, was a great thing because it allows those districts to make investments that they have long needed,” said Qubilah Huddleston, who works on school funding issues for the Education Trust. “That said, they are also now faced with making some of the toughest budget decisions that they probably had to make in a while.”

Huddleston also cautioned that other factors, including state aid changing as enrollment fell across the country, are adding to districts’ budget troubles.

”Districts are dealing with a lot more than just the ESSER loss,” she said. “It’s certainly the factor that’s contributing the most, but they have also experienced enrollment declines that they did not expect. They have also inflation, right, things costing more, whether it’s energy, whether it’s labor… happening all at the same time that this loss of ESSER dollars is happening.”

Cleveland has its own local issues affecting how the cuts play out. The district has a new CEO, allowing him to pick his own priorities without being accountable for past promises. The district expected budget deficits in the next few years regardless of COVID and COVID aid, so typical financial needs are hard to separate from those caused by the loss of federal money.

Cleveland Teachers Union President Shari Obrenski said the long-expected cuts are not a crisis and noted that all the federal money may have bought the district an extra year before needing to ask voters for a tax increase.

“This is what I find frustrating about the narrative that’s coming from the district right now,” Obrenski said. “We were able to use our ESSER dollars to make our general fund dollars last longer, which I think was actually a very good idea.”

“It’s not a good idea to push these kids out in the streets after school and close the building behind them.”
Dave Smith, program director, Clevelanders for Afterschool

Some of Cleveland’s proposed cuts hit programs that started using federal aid, while others cut efforts championed by former CEO Eric Gordon that Morgan is re-evaluating.

Morgan has proposed cutting $6.4 million budgeted for providing every student a laptop and providing many with portable wifi hotspots when they do not have internet access at home. So-called “one-to-one” computer programs are increasingly common in suburban districts and was a goal of Gordon for years before the pandemic forced the district to buy devices for remote classes in the 2020-21 school year.

It was a huge step for Cleveland, ranked as the worst-connected city in America by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

The district also made continuing this program a key promise of its fall 2020 campaign for a tax increase for the schools.

But Morgan said not all students are receiving laptops and teachers are often not sending them home with students.

The district would not immediately answer questions from The 74 about how many laptops or hotspots are included in that estimate or how much progress has been made in attempts to provide affordable internet access in disconnected neighborhoods.

Additional summer learning program cuts

Cleveland’s summer learning program, which took traditional remedial programs and turned them into a mix of classes and fun activities as a way to re-engage students, is also being trimmed. Morgan estimated he can save $30 million over the next two years by cutting the program from 4,225 students last year to 3,500 this year with more class time in shorter days.

Morgan also proposed cutting $34.1 million over two years budgeted for afterschool programs run by outside groups like the Boys and Girls Club or America SCORES, a national program that mixes soccer with poetry. Traditional school athletic teams and clubs are not affected.

[Related: Gas, food, lodging for homeless students in jeopardy as funding deadline looms]

A coalition of providers, Clevelanders for Afterschool, has formed in opposition, saying cutting 93 programs from 17 providers will hurt students. David Smith, who runs some programs and is organizing the push to keep them, said they help students emotionally and academically, along with helping reduce crime in the city.

“It’s not a good idea to push these kids out in the streets after school and close the building behind them,” Smith said.

Morgan said he hopes these programs can find other funding or that city recreation centers can fill the gap.

Morgan also proposed saving close to $14 million by cutting extra school days from schools that have classes year-round or extra days in the school year. Gordon started several specialized high schools that focused on topics like STEM, medicine, or aerospace and maritime careers that run through the summer to keep learning momentum with students and avoid summer learning loss.

Those eight schools have 20 additional school days, while another 13 have 10 extra days added to their school years.

Morgan said the academic results of these schools are mixed, even though they receive more money than other schools to pay teachers for extra days.

“Right now, that sets up some inequities,” Morgan said. “We have schools that are receiving disproportionately more resources, more time and school days. Staff are receiving more resources. We do want to really make sure that we are equitable.”

***

Patrick O’Donnell is a Cleveland-based freelance reporter and a correspondent at The 74. He covers Ohio and national news about education and schools, with a focus on the impact of the pandemic on America’s education system.

This story first appeared at The 74, a nonprofit news site covering education. Sign up for free newsletters from The 74.






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