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Eagleside Elementary is seen on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in Fountain. Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 in El Paso County serves over 8,000 students in 13 schools. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Rowan Raetz has grand ideas for his high school, an aged building that could use a little sprucing up. He envisions an outdoor classroom or, at the very least, a relaxation space — one filled with plants, some comfy lounge chairs and perhaps even a water feature.

“I think that would really help us mentally learn better, and I feel like … it would make us feel more at home instead of (at) school,” said Rowan, 15, who will be a sophomore this fall at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs.

The concept was one of several offered during a virtual listening session on Thursday in which a dozen kids from across Colorado chimed in on how the Colorado Department of Education could best spend about $132 million in federal stimulus dollars to help schools recover from the pandemic. 

The students, who spend so many of their waking hours listening to adults, took turns talking for nearly an hour over Zoom. This time, the adults listened as they opened up about their experiences, struggles and moments of resilience over the past 16 months. 

Even in the thick of their summer break, the kids are thinking about what the next school year will bring and what lessons they learned amid the pandemic that will help them thrive in later years. Students want to see free breakfasts and lunches continue to be available at their schools; they’re eager for more outdoor learning spaces and investment in infrastructure that will support a reliable internet connection. They also want their teachers to be trained to respond to student stress and trauma; and they’re asking for more programs that prioritize after-school learning, more support when it comes to applying to college and more flexible schedules that allow students to hold jobs and internships.

Thursday’s student-driven discussion, which included students across a range of grades, was the latest in a series of community conversations organized by the Colorado Department of Education and the Keystone Policy Center. 

Students deserve to have the loudest voices as the state explores how best to use federal stimulus dollars, said Berrick Abramson, senior policy director of the Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit that helps leaders solve problems and policy conflicts in education and other community issues.

“I think student voices have to be the center of every conversation we ever have in education, and they were the ones most directly impacted and the ones that these funds are targeted primarily to support,” Abramson said. “So while parents and teachers can offer a perspective and offer what they experienced, there is nothing that replaces direct student voice on what they experienced, what they saw their peers experience and what would be helpful to them and their friends going forward.” 

Devising a plan by the end of August

CDE’s $132 million in federal funds comes from the two most recent stimulus packages Colorado received to support schools. Since March 2020, three rounds of federal stimulus have been distributed to school districts.

The first round of funding, granted under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund in March 2020, gave Colorado about $121 million. The package included $11.5 million in discretionary spending. The state used part of the first package of funding to make sure districts had the technology and supplies needed for remote learning, said Jennifer Okes, CDE’s chief operating officer. 

CDE received about $519 million from a second round of ESSER funding in December targeted toward helping schools reopen and keep in-person learning environments safe. That included about $49 million the department could decide how to allocate. A third package of ESSER funding in March awarded the state about $1.2 billion, about $111 million of which the state has the power to spend as it wants. The third installment of funding has centered on supporting schools’ recovery efforts as they work to catch up students whose academics may have suffered during the pandemic.

The state has spent part of the $49 million in discretionary funding from the second federal package and has about $21.4 million left. That, combined with the $111 million from the third round of ESSER funding, adds up to the $132 million on the table for the state to figure out how to invest in education as schools prepare for another school year amid the pandemic.

There are federal Department of Education rules about how the $132 million must be spent. About $58.3 million must be used to address learning loss, such as programs to extend the school day or school year, as well as programs to give kids summer learning and enrichment opportunities and programs to bolster after-school learning. Another $11.7 million must directly cover summer programming. A separate $11.7 million must fund after-school programming. And the remaining $50.5 million can be put toward a variety of expenses related to the COVID-19 response, such as purchasing additional technology for staff or students, investing in training or supplies, establishing more support for mental health, and improving air filtration or ventilation systems, Okes said.

Some districts have already covered those priorities with money from earlier waves of funding distributed by the state. And districts have largely decided how they will spend most of those relief dollars.

Harrison School District in Colorado Springs last summer made videos explaining what to expect when their students returned to in-person learning. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CDE must report its spending plan to the federal Department of Education by the end of August. States were originally supposed to hand over their plans in early June, but Colorado needed more time to ask communities about where stimulus dollars should flow, Okes said.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in education, and we wanted to get robust stakeholder input to make sure that we’re using the funds to make the most impacts,” Okes said.

The state has taken a more formal approach to collecting feedback about how to spend the $132 million in its pocket. Earlier this month, the Keystone Policy Center arranged virtual meetings with teachers, parents and community organizations. Next week, it will consult principals and administrators about the most effective ways to use the federal dollars.

Additionally, the Keystone Policy Center helped develop an online survey available to students, parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders that is accessible in both English and Spanish. So far, the survey, which asks participants about the innovations from the pandemic that should be carried forward, touches on students’ experiences and looks at what kind of support educators need, has garnered nearly 1,000 responses, Abramson said.

“The most effective teachers were the most empathetic ones”

Okes made clear to students that the $132 million is made up of one-time funds, meaning that they won’t be renewed to continue funding academic programs, staff salaries and student resources. The state has until Sept. 30, 2024, to complete the spending, Okes said.

“Any costs after that time would need to be covered with normal base funding at the district and/or state level,” she wrote to students in the Zoom chat function.

But those leading the virtual meeting didn’t want that complication to stifle students as they shared ideas for how to make the most out of the federal money in future school years.

One idea that gained the most traction during the virtual meeting revolved around the continuation of free breakfasts and lunches that students emphasized were a huge help during such a turbulent school year.

Livi Christiansen, who will be a senior at Poudre High School this fall, took advantage of free breakfasts and lunches and was especially grateful to have access to meals before exams. Muffins from her school lunch ladies were a go-to for her.

“Free food is a very important resource that I think schools should invest more in,” Livi, 16, said.

Students like Livi will be in luck for the next school year as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended universal free meals through the next school year.

The rising senior also hit on the need to train teachers to effectively respond to trauma in the classroom.

“I found that the most effective teachers were the most empathetic ones,” Livi said. “What we’re still going through and what we went through for the past year and a half is national trauma, international trauma.” 

Recognition from teachers, both in the way they taught and in the way they distributed the workload was “incredibly useful,” she said, recommending that CDE invest in training for teachers to learn how to respond to the lasting emotional impacts school communities have faced.

“It’s very real for teachers and students because this is something so new and just groundbreaking I guess in not so good of ways,” Livi said.

The student said her English teacher was an empathetic person who would start most classes by checking in with students and adjusted class workloads on Jan. 6 amid the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol so that students could take time to recover and “find a way to be OK.”

“Teachers being honest about how they’re feeling made it easier for them to empathize with students about how they’re feeling,” Livi said.

More support for internet connections and college applications

Other students, including Blake Cass, found that the teachers who helped them learn most effectively during the pandemic were the ones proficient with technology.

“I thought what helped me learn the most through the pandemic were my teachers that are ‘tech-savvy,’” Blake, an incoming seventh grader, wrote in the Zoom chat. “Teachers that are tech-savvy could communicate to (me) easier, in comparison to my non tech-savvy teachers. If you could spend some of your money helping teachers with technology, I think a lot of students would appreciate that.”

Technology posed a major barrier for many students who struggled with accessing a reliable internet connection while learning from home.

Rowan, of Liberty High School, said the Wi-Fi in his district, Academy School District 20, has not worked so well.

“Every time I tried to get on, it’s always like, ‘this website cannot be reached, this website cannot be reached,’” Rowan said. “And it often takes me a long time to get onto my most-needed, school-affiliated websites.”

Valerie Stumpf teaches third grade remotely from her classroom at Letford Elementary in Johnstown on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Stumpf said she prefers her classroom to teaching from home, mainly because her internet connection slows down when she and her daughters are online at the same time. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun

If schools need students to complete work online in the future, he wants those schools to have a better internet connection, possibly with funding support from federal stimulus dollars.

Rowan said more flexible class schedules are needed. During the most recent school year at Liberty High School, students had Wednesdays off to use as a work day, Rowan said. Extra study time helped his mental health, especially as he tried to stay on top of advanced placement and honors courses. The day off also gave teachers more time for planning.

“I think it really helped everybody by spacing the week out,” Rowan said.

Aimee Resnick, who will be a senior at Cherry Creek High School this fall, echoes the need for more flexible schedules. She noted that with a hybrid schedule and a day off, many peers were able to take on an internship or job alongside their classwork.

Students used that additional time “for opportunities that they otherwise couldn’t have” pursued, Aimee, 16, said.

MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Other students, like Gianny Venegas, who graduated from Fountain Fort-Carson High School this spring and who will attend the University of Colorado in the fall, hopes to see some of the federal funding go toward supporting students as they prepare for college and their careers.

Gianny said that earlier this year, as she and her classmates were virtually learning, it was stressful to apply to college. 

“In a normal year, we would have our counselors come in, talk us through it and kind of guide us,” she said. “And it was so scary this year to apply to college.”

The student said she was “intimidated” to send emails seeking help.

“A bit of support in applying to college would be really helpful, especially if we’re online,” Gianny said. “I remember how complicated it seemed and I thought I was missing things, and I guess still even to this day I wish I had like my counselor with me.”

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin