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Indiana bill would offer $150 million for COVID learning recovery

With a school bus in the background, students wearing masks and walking on a walkway receive temperature checks
Students across the country missed out on months of in-person instruction during the pandemic, and research shows that many have fallen behind academically.
Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

A bill speeding through the Indiana House would provide a $150 million boost for programs that aim to help students who have fallen behind in school during the pandemic.

A top priority for House Republicans, HB 1008 won unanimous support from committee members Wednesday, an early step in the legislative process. Students across the country missed out on months of in-person instruction during the pandemic, and research shows that many have fallen behind academically — raising fears that children will suffer educationally for years to come.

The current proposal would allow local schools, universities, and other organizations to apply for $150 million in competitive grants to help students catch up.

The commitment to fund learning recovery drew praise from everyone who spoke at a hearing Wednesday. But some advocates argued that only schools and districts should be eligible for the grants because they have the expertise and responsibility to help students catch up.

“If we truly want to make the best use of these dollars, we recommend that grant recipients be professionals in teaching and learning,” said John O’Neal, a lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

“The bill as written takes the approach that pretty much anyone or any group can do this,” O’Neal said. “But if we’ve learned anything over the last year, with remote learning and the challenges during the pandemic — especially parents — it’s that not everyone can do this work.”

An administrator in the Evansville schools, bill author Wendy McNamara said she believes efforts should focus on enrichment for children, and she had seen students thrive in programs from the local Boys & Girls Club. If grants were restricted to schools, similar community organizations would not be eligible.

“If you exclude groups like Boys & Girls Club or whatever it might be, I fear that we’re missing out on an opportunity,” said McNamara, R-Evansville. “Sometimes students are going to learn in a different atmosphere other than what they are exposed to in a school building each day.”

In Indianapolis, organizations and educators have already begun planning for a summer program that would include community groups.

The Mind Trust, which supports Indianapolis charter schools, and the United Way of Central Indiana, announced last week that they will spend $500,000 to devise a plan for summer learning in partnership with schools and community organizations.

The effort will build on the network of community learning sites for students in remote schooling that The Mind Trust helped fund and coordinate this year.

“It’s going to take years and years to mitigate a lot of the academic hardships that have happened in the past 12 months,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust. Given the scale of the challenge, “it’s unfair for us to put all the onus on schools, and if the community can step up and play a critical role, then that’s only going to ensure that schools have more capacity.”

While there is some disagreement over the best approach, politicians and advocates agree that increasing remediation efforts is essential.

Educators across the state are seeing in their classrooms how the coronavirus has hampered student learning. Eddie Rangel, executive director of Adelante Schools, said that when teachers assessed students in the fall, the results were “really alarming.”

First-grade students, for example, struggled with reading after missing months of kindergarten. Many could not hear and break apart the sounds in words in order to read them, for example. And because they were reading so slowly, they struggled to comprehend what they read.

Creating a summer program for students will be crucial to help fill gaps, Rangel said. But doing so will be a costly logistical challenge because staff need to plan transportation for students and ensure the program they offer is safe.

“If we were to wave a magic wand, it wouldn’t be your traditional remediation program,” Rangel said. “It would look more like a camp. Because another big piece that’s missing for kids is the social-emotional learning and being around kids — being able to build relationships with their peers.”

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