On January 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the United States. By March, school closures became rampant and school leaders began to grapple with the most startling set of challenges schools have had to face in recent memory.
- Do all of our students have computers and reliable internet connection to participate in class every day?
- Do our teachers know how to effectively teach online courses?
- Do students with parents who have been laid off have enough food to eat?
Transitioning to remote learning with such short notice was not an easy task. Seeing this increased burden, the Walton Family Foundation decided to support grantee schools with an additional $20 million in emergency COVID relief grants. Of that, $1.92 million went directly to schools, with the rest going to a variety of education organizations working to support students during the pandemic. This $1.92 million was dispersed among 96 schools, which were free to spend the funds on whatever they felt was most important and urgent, generally following into the below categories:
- Remote Learning (Chromebooks, Wi-Fi hotspots, Zoom memberships, etc.)
- Professional Development (online teaching training, racial bias training, etc.)
- Support for Students/Staff (food, health-related products, COVID tests, etc.)
- Recruitment and Retention (social media ads, teacher bonuses, etc.)
A survey of participating schools revealed that the grants had a direct positive impact on more than 44,451 students and 2,968 faculty. Specifically, there was a very significant impact in the categories of remote learning and recruitment and retention.
While we were excited to learn that the grants had a positive impact, we were also keen to understand how the variables within schools and the variables within the environment altered a school’s choice of how to spend the funds. Overall, the majority of funds were spent on remote learning. This confirms that the transition to remote learning was not one without challenges.
The age of the schools had the most significant impact on the allocation of funds. The vast majority of the 96 schools that received direct funding were founded in 2020, 2019, or 2018. Because of the difficulties of starting a new school, schools that are in their first year have a much different set of challenges than schools in their third year. This was evident in how schools chose to allocate their grant dollars.
Each of the four categories shows a clear pattern in regard to school age. Younger schools spent more on professional development and recruitment, while spending less on remote learning and support for students and staff.
Although we expected that younger schools would spend more on professional development and recruitment, this is still a statistically significant pattern. Younger schools needed to recruit more proactively to attract students and teachers because they were not yet a known entity.
Younger schools also spent more on professional development, primarily because they had to set standards and establish a culture for their school. These are things that schools would have needed to do regardless of the pandemic; however, COVID made it significantly harder to effectively establish a healthy and productive culture as well as recruit people to join that culture.
The two categories that older schools spent more on (remote learning and support for students and staff) was more the result of a reduced need in the other areas than anything else. This means that the younger schools in our sample were in more significant need of funding than the older schools.
While the coronavirus has been a persistent challenge over the past year, we have been deeply inspired by the strength and resilience schools, families and communities have displayed in their response to that challenge, and with their optimism for what the future holds.
Everett Banks is an intern with the K-12 Education Program. During his internship, he has studied the impact of the foundation’s COVID grants.