Feds approve Alaska schools plan, releasing final $119 million in COVID education relief

Two boys wearing face masks look at a teacher.
Students at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School listen to Ray Imel talk about a Makerspace class on the first day of classes on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The U.S. Department of Education has approved the state of Alaska’s plan for spending more than $358 million in relief funds to help schools recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

About two thirds of the funds were distributed earlier this year. The recent approval of the spending plan releases the rest — about $119 million — to the state.

“It is a lot of money,” said Deborah Riddle, an operations manager for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. She handled the fiscal details of the state’s spending plan. “If you were to take the CARES Act funds, and the CRRSSA (Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act) funds, those two first pots of money, put those together and then double it.”

School districts are required to spend 20% of the funds on addressing learning loss, but Riddle said districts are also taking advantage of the influx of cash to fund other things too, like building upgrades.

“Ventilation-type activities, replacing windows, (and) working on air quality,” were common expenditures among districts, Riddle said.

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After reaching out to different groups and gathering feedback, the state’s plan says its biggest priorities are supporting face-to-face instruction, providing mental health supports and addressing learning loss. Districts must spend the funds by September 2023.

Most of the money went directly to school districts to spend, but the state did keep about $25 million, Riddle said.

The state will use some of that money, Riddle said, to fund contracts that can go to organizations other than local districts to create programs or products that will help schools recover from the pandemic, help improve students’ reading ability and support career and technical readiness.

“We’re kind of counting on the innovation of the folks who have these great ideas that we can fund,” Riddle said. “That might be more (like) things that will last like maybe a product we want created.”

RELATED: Mass testing can keep COVID out of schools. But none of Alaska’s largest districts are doing it.

Riddle said districts will also be able to apply to the department for “enhancement grants” which are additional funds that can support the projects districts come up with to address learning loss, support after-school programming and summer learning activities.

“They can apply to the department and get some additional supplemental funds to make that program a little bit more robust than what they were able to do with their own funds,” she said.

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