COVID-19 relief money helps students recover from learning losses

LAKE WORTH BEACH, Fla. — Dozens of public school teachers across the School District of Palm Beach County who were hired specifically to help students struggling from the COVID-19 pandemic are making a difference.

The district invested about $30 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to fund those jobs.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education

The School District of Palm Beach County had more than 300 positions to fill to help make up for lost learning during the pandemic.

Four of those positions are at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth Beach, where longtime teacher Maureen Flynn is loving her new role.

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Teacher Maureen Flynn works with students at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth Beach on April 20, 2022.

“This gives me a chance to pull the small groups and really focus on that specific reading intervention that these students need,” Flynn said.

Flynn works with second graders as a supplemental academic instruction teacher.

“They are struggling readers and English is their second language,” Flynn said. “But I’ve seen so much progress from them and they get so excited.”

Across the classroom, Kimberly Brenner is also in a new role as an acceleration resource teacher, working with third graders who are doing math on a fourth grade level.

“Kids were afraid to make mistakes. They’re afraid they are going to bubble the wrong thing,” Brenner said. “And I love being able to have that safety to have those conversations and say, it’s OK. It’s more about our thinking. And we are strengthening our thinking.”

Teacher Kimberly Brenner works with students at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth Beach on April 20, 2022.jpg

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Teacher Kimberly Brenner works with students at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth Beach on April 20, 2022.

Both teaching positions are new at Highland Elementary School thanks to funding from federal COVID-19 relief money, known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER.

The jobs are designed to not only help those who are behind, but enrich those who are ahead.

“It’s nice to see everyone’s needs are being met because of the additional positions,” said Principal Elena Villani.

Principal Elena Villani of Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth Beach speaks to WPTV on April 20, 2022.jpg

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Principal Elena Villani of Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth Beach speaks to WPTV on April 20, 2022.

Villani said the extra hands are helping students make big strides.

“We haven’t seen a single student — and I say that with confidence — flatline. Every single student has been making an upward trend,” Villani said.

Villani added that making up for what the coronavirus pandemic took won’t be quick.

“This isn’t a one-time special and we’re finished,” Villani said. “We need to continue to do it because the achievement gap — besides being a year-and-a-half at a minimum — it’s going to take more than a year to close that.”

It’s something these teachers know all too well.

“I love it and I’m looking forward to next year,” Brenner said.

Teacher Kimberly Brenner works with students at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth Beach on April 20, 2022 (1).jpg

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Teacher Kimberly Brenner works with students at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth Beach on April 20, 2022.

Highland Elementary School also has an additional reading recovery teacher for first graders who are below grade level, and a staff member to analyze and interpret student data.

All positions are funded for next school year as well.

You can learn more about the ESSER-funded positions in the School District of Palm Beach County here:

All Palm Beach County public schools received support, but schools with the most need received the most support and positions.

“When our budgets were released and we received our allocations with positions, they had shared Highland was getting these four positions,” Villani said.

Through the federal COVID relief money, Highland Elementary School received a supplemental academic instruction (SAI) position to focus on working with second grade students to close the achievement gap before they get to third grade.

Highland Elementary School already has one SAI teacher and now has a second. The school also now has an acceleration resource teacher for advanced coursework, a second reading recovery position to focus on first grade students who are below grade level, and a professional learning community leader to look at data and analyze it in real time.

Villani said that position has been a big help to teachers in the classroom.

“Helping them take the data to drive the instruction, meet the needs, find out what the deficiencies are, where those accelerations are, where the kids are shining and need the enrichment,” Villani said. “So it’s really nice because that is her sole job.”

Villani added that all of the students who have been part of the reading recovery program are now on grade level, and these positions have been vital to start closing achievement gaps.

“You do need the extra set of hands. You do need the extra expertise. You do need elbow grease that goes in to get this work done,” Villani said.