ALBANY — As New York school districts prepare for an infusion of federal funding, state education officials envision a top priority will be assisting students who lost instruction time due to the pandemic.

According to an 88-page report completed by the state Department of Education, students have experienced a "significant adverse impact" when they spent less time in classrooms during the public health crisis.

Those impacts have been most profound on students with disabilities, English language learners and students from poor households, the agency found.

Education officials cited one study that found students in some grade levels fell behind by nearly a full year in their level of achievement in math.

All told, New York's school districts will take in nearly $9 billion from the America Cares Act.

The state's plan also envisions funding full-day pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds and expanding existing pre-kindergarten programs. Many daycare, preschool and enrichment programs had to close for much of the past year, the report noted.

With expanded pre-kindergarten programs, the youngsters will be able to "catch up on lost early childhood learning, socialization and other foundational skills required for long-term success," the report said.

David Little, director of the New York State Rural Schools Association, said the federal recovery funds will provide schools with such a significant infusion that administrators won't have to worry about slashing teacher jobs or trimming programs such as music and sports.

Noting he has been dealing with funding for public education since he went to work as a legislative aide in 1983, Little told CNHI: "I have never seen a year when the federal government put in this much money. Period."

The assistance comes at a time when state lawmakers boosted what the state spends on school aid. Under the state budget approved last month, schools will be getting $29.5 billion from the state in the current fiscal year — a $3 billion increase from the previous year.

Little said he is optimistic that many rural districts will now be able to afford to launch pre-kindergarten programs. Those districts previously lacked the resources to pay for the start-up costs, he said.

"Now they will use the federal money for the upfront costs and the state will reimburse them the following year," he said.

New York districts will have considerable flexibility in how they spend the money, though their options will not include "padding their fund balance," Little pointed out.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said with the coming federal dollars, the districts are "collectively in much better shape than they were last summer, last fall or even in January of this year."

When New York's economy was rocked a year ago by the pandemic and related shutdowns, there was concern when state officials responded with a plan to withhold 20% of the school aid due to districts, but that money ended up being delivered, he noted.

The state report also discussed what it called a chronic shortage of mental health counselors for children.

"Students and adults are grappling with new and exacerbated trauma that can have far-reaching impacts on health and educational outcomes, potentially well beyond the pandemic," the report said.

Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers, the union for school teachers, said the new report identifies areas of concern that have been highlighted for years by teachers, including the need for smaller class sizes and new enrichment programs for students.

"Now the work begins on the local level, where educators should be given a strong voice in discussions about how best to put this money to use to fund their students’ futures," Pallotta said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhinews.com

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