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COVID relief spending at Berkshire Hills reveals impact of pandemic policy on students

More support needed for English learners, other vulnerable students

Monument Mountain High students masks runners

Runners from the Monument Mountain Regional High School girls cross-country team start off their race in October 2020 in Great Barrington. Pandemic relief money was being used to try to undo the damage to students caused by policies meant to curb the spread of the virus.

GREAT BARRINGTON — For students who might have struggled with school and life before the pandemic, now the risk is even greater.

With the crisis barreling toward year three, the direction of more than $1.2 million in federal pandemic relief money shows what Berkshire Hills Regional School District educators and families are worried about.

Students trying to learn English, as well as the most vulnerable students whose learning, development and mental health have taken the hardest hit during the pandemic, are the focus of future plans for this third round of federal Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief Funds, also known as ESSER III. Meetings with the school community helped decide where to focus the funds.

The money will help a growing immigrant student population learn English, and add support staff for all students amid a continuing crisis. This includes the hiring of one full- and part-time English as a second language teacher. It also includes a new administrator for the Career and Technical Education program as well as money for tutoring. 

The spending plan can shift if needs change, said Superintendent Peter Dillon.

Pandemic policies and restrictions have been particularly harmful for young students.

“We’re seeing people vulnerable, anxious and depressed, and the skills they would typically fine-tune in school they haven’t had the opportunity to do,” Dillon said.  “I think we’ll have to work on this for years. We may be working on this until they graduate.”

Berkshire Hills has so far received roughly $1.87 million in ESSER funding since 2020, beginning with $80,784 that year, and $559,315 in 2021. North Adams Regional School District received the most in ESSER III funding, at $4,252,534, followed by Central Berkshire Regional School District, at $2,576,425.

The grants are part of $122 billion in American Rescue Plan Act education money sent to states across the country. In July, $611.3 million in ESSER III money was distributed to Massachusetts to support schools in reopening safely while also tending to the full range of students’ needs.

At least 20 percent has to be spent on catch up from all the lost schooling, particularly for vulnerable students. Other priorities are providing meals for those struggling to buy food, buying educational technology and providing mental health services.

The planned addition of a speech language pathology assistant is particularly important, officials say.

“The COVID-19 pandemic greatly interrupted speech services for our most vulnerable age and demographic populations and our current staffing levels cannot meet the current demand,” says an overview of the grant use.

For vulnerable students, the situation is worse. Case in point: Parent Erica Mielke told officials at the Jan. 27 School Committee meeting that she had heard “unsettling anecdotes from people about what is happening in some of the classrooms at the high school,” as students who don’t speak English flounder.

“It sounds like a lot of these immigrant kids, youth, who are some of the most recent arrivals are not really being fully there in these classes,” Mielke said, referring to some of more than 20 students who recently arrived here from another country to reunite with family.

“I’m just wondering if we’re doing everything we can or if there’s something that can happen more in the short-term … to make sure that these kids have a friendly face that can speak their language that they know they can turn to.”

School officials agree and have worked to add support to about 29 newcomers. Most are at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Some plans include creating a buddy system with English learners and native English speakers, and possibly starting a “Newcomers Academy” that will shore up basic fluency before students try to learn other subjects, Dillon told The Eagle.

“We always have more work to do and figure things out,” he said.

The schools are moving in the right direction, said America Lopez, the parent liaison for the English Learners of other Language families.

“There’s still a gap with what’s happening,” Lopez said. “The school is trying to meet their needs … to listen to their voices, to create programs and to include the students.”

It's the high schoolers who need the most support, Lopez said. For many reasons, it's not easy to integrate and certainly not during a pandemic.

“Many are here with just one family member, so that makes things even more difficult for them,” she said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871. 

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