READFIELD — The COVID-19 pandemic has created learning gaps for most students in Regional School Unit 38, and the district plans to use coronavirus relief funds to help close them.

RSU 38 principals updated the district’s board of directors Wednesday night on how students are adjusting to being back at school full time. The principals said learning gaps are evident.

“The learning gap is real,” said Readfield Elementary School Principal Jeff Boston. “Whether they were with us, home-schooled or at another institution, the level of education everyone is used to isn’t there, and there are significant gaps.”

The district is to receive $1.49 million from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Elementary Relief Fund, or ESSER. Of that, $299,397 — or 20% — is required to fund portions of the RSU 38 budget to address learning gaps.

On Wednesday night, Superintendent Jay Charette and the RSU 38 board had identified areas where the funds could be spent, including summer or after-school programming targeting specific academic needs.

Pandemic-related learning gaps were anticipated by major health organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which published a study in March that said transitioning back to school might cause the gaps, especially in social and emotional needs due to stress from being back in classrooms.

Students who were in school part time might last year had a different experience back than those who attended full time. The adjustment back to sitting at a classroom for the whole day instead of remote learning from home can be challenging, according to officials.

Manchester Elementary School Principal Abbie Hartford said she had noticed patterns similar to those Boston described, especially in students who went to school two days a week instead of four or five.

“Learning where the students are will take a lot of conversation, important conversation,” Hartford said. “I know it won’t be a one-day thing.”

After hearing from the school administrators, the board agreed to put aside an additional $80,000 from the ESSER funding to target areas the district has yet to identify.

District officials said they hoped NWEA statewide testing will provide administrators information to find common factors for learning gaps, since students will likely be in different learning areas.

NWEA is a research-based, nonprofit organization that creates academic assessments for students from prekindergarten through high school.

“When we get more assessment data, the NWEA in October, then we will be able to go with interventions,” Hartford said.

The ESSER money has to be spent within the next three years, and the application is due by the end of the month so the district can get the testing results back. School officials could not say whether gaps were in a certain subject or in all-around learning.

To target learning gaps, the district plans to budget $178,000 for summer, $150,000 for after-school programming to be spent over three years and $45,000 for phonics programs and literacy agents to target academic needs.

The additional $80,000 the board has earmarked to target academic needs will be taken from $245,000 intended to cover long-term substitute expenses.

District officials chose to take money out of the long-term substitute funding because of the challenges in finding people for those jobs. Charette said it would not make sense to make a long-term investment in that area, but instead to use $40,000 for educational technician, or ed tech,  positions, and $60,000 for a nurse to help administer COVID-19 and pool testing.

The district also plans to set aside $60,000 for an elementary school guidance councilor.

Elementary schools in Mount Vernon and Wayne now share a principal, but the district plans to allocate $330,000 over three years to hire a principal for Wayne, hoping the hire will improve the school structure.

Charette said Wayne Elementary School has five new staff members and one who has been at the school for six months. The new principal would serve for at least two years to see if the position makes a difference, with future discussion about the impact a third year could have.

“If we don’t pay attention to the little school, we are going to be feeling it moving forward,” Charette said. “It will ripple into the middle school, then into the high school and if we can address it now and get a handle on it, we can help revert it to the original structure.”

RSU 38 officials said they plan to spend $415,000 on laptop computers. Because enrollment has increased, the district needs more laptops for students and staff members.

The original amount budgeted to pay for space configuration was $280,000, but Charette reduced that to $165,000 because he was told the first estimate was high.

The money is to cover the cost to reconfigure classrooms at Readfield Elementary School, the high school band space, the professional development center and the high school media center to add a writing lab. The goal is to utilize space to meet distancing requirements.

The district has also set aside $45,000 for furniture at Readfield Elementary School and to assist with lunch, and $3,500 for personal protective equipment for band members, including bell covers and masks with holes that allow students to play their musical instruments.

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