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Norwich Free Academy to receive COVID-19 recovery grant

Norwich — Norwich public school leaders have been planning for months how to use the more than $26 million anticipated in federal COVID-19 impact grants to boost academics, summer school, sports, physical and mental health services.

But until late March, Norwich Free Academy, the designated public high school for eight towns, including three distressed municipalities — Norwich, Preston and Sprague — sat on the sidelines, pleading for a share.

As an independent, privately endowed academy, NFA does not qualify for federal public school funding through the two CARES Acts and new American Rescue Plan, although the sending towns fund most of the academy's operating budget.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and NFA officials have been lobbying to change what Osten called a "slight" to the more than 2,000 NFA students, many of whom are in low-income, financially struggling families.

"It shorts the students by not compensating the high school at the level it should," Osten said. "Because those students don’t get the supports other high schools are getting, like computers, summer programs, mental health supports."

The state Department of Education recently notified NFA it would receive $807,680 through the state's portion of last fall’s second CARES Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, called ESSER II. Spokesman Peter Yazbak said the agency is still determining district entitlements for the new American Rescue Plan.

All school districts receiving ESSER II funding must submit their applications on how they would use the grants by April 19.

NFA Head of School Brian Kelly welcomed the grant: "As you can imagine, we came up with a pretty long list of things we need.”

Kelly said NFA will concentrate on students’ reading recovery and credit recovery, create student learning labs, teacher training, literacy, technology and “beefing up” social and emotional learning services, including counseling.

Speech pathology for students needing that service has suffered during remote learning and will be enhanced, Kelly said.

“We’re really, really focusing on the engagement with students, families and really making sure those social and emotional skills are addressed,” Kelly said. “A lot of kids are impacted by this.”

In a student survey, some students questioned whether things will return to normal and “am I going to be safe?” Kelly said.

Many students have fallen behind on academics and will need help to recover enough credits to graduate. NFA officials estimated about 250 students will attend summer school, about 150 more than usual. About 280 students are expected to use the 14 learning labs planned for next school year.

NFA will seek reimbursement for $46,000 spent on COVID-19 safety measures, NFA finance director Richard Freeman said.

“We’re incredibly grateful,” Kelly said. “This is going to make a difference for us. Some of these things we were really, really worried about. I feel like we can take a deep breath and make the right decision by kids, and make sure they get what they need.”

Norwich Public Schools Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow and her staff are finalizing their April 19 grant plan for the $8.5 million in CARES Act ESSER II funds and the estimated $18.1 million American Rescue Plan grant.

The CARES Act funding must be spent in four categories: academics, technology, social and emotional learning and family support. Norwich will concentrate on academics and social and emotional learning, Stringfellow said, with some funding going into all four categories.

By 2023, when the two-year grants expire, the laptops and internet supports received last spring will need to be replaced or upgraded, Stringfellow said.

Stringfellow will use grants to speed up her long-term plan to restructure city schools with certified teachers replacing non-certified support staff. The plan, she said, must be sustainable after the grants run out, with fewer certified teachers replacing the higher numbers of non-certified positions.

Social and emotional learning in the enhanced summer school will emphasize play, physical activity and group lessons. Unified middle school sports, in partnership with Special Olympics, will feature intramural and interscholastic competition.

Stringfellow told the Board of Education Tuesday the plan includes instrumental music for all schools, fitness programs for young students and clubs.

“The focus is getting them out of the house, away from their computer screens, running around the playground, talking to other kids,” Stringfellow said. “That’s important, especially for our youngest learners, where parents chose not to send kids to preschool and kindergarten. We saw a lot of that. I don’t think there’s anyone I’ve met who has said their physical and mental health has gotten better by this isolation.”

At least $3.6 million of the Norwich school district's $18.1 million American Rescue Plan grant must be spent on learning loss recovery, Stringfellow said. The district's plan will address academics, school safety, supports for students in poverty and education equity.

“We will examine everything through an equity lens,” Stringfellow said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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