• Benedict Ballman

Where are our In-School Operating Funds Going During Distance Learning?

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

The Coronavirus is many things, but the last thing that many would associate it with is the ring of a dismissal bell. The bell on March 13th, the last day Montgomery County Public Schools had in-school class before an emergency closure, remains clear in my mind -- the excitement of an ‘extended spring break’ making the clock tick slower towards the end of the day. Many students experienced the same dual emotions of excitement for getting out of school and a looming fear of the unknown, an odd juxtaposition of emotions. But as reality dawned on us, the excitement quickly left, leaving only the fear of what was to come. As the pandemic spread, schools continually extended their ‘return’ dates just out of reach. Our past thrill now seemed immature, negligent of the inescapable truth. It became clear not long after we left that the March 13th dismissal bell was not one to celebrate. 

Schools had to quickly find new ways to compensate for the lack of in-person education. Soon distance learning became the norm, with applications like zoom and blackboard turning mainstream. Our 7:45 first period became a 12-1 optional zoom check-in; our final exams turned into arts and craft projects. Everything we had come to know about school was flipped on its head in a matter of weeks. 

The fundamental changes to school have not been isolated to how we learn and what our exams are like, however. For some, school provides an important place and environment to support students’ mental health. School can represent a reprieve for students, away from the stresses that may be present in their home life, wherein they can connect with friends and receive positive mentorship from adults. Unfortunately, home is a place that is stressful and unstable for many students, so having an avenue to leave that environment is incredibly beneficial to a student’s mental health. And, of course, there are other important aspects of school that support and benefit students. These include extracurriculars like clubs and sports, which have been proven to aid mental health; or the basic in-person interaction that is so vital to humans, especially children and adolescents. In addition, many students have come to rely on the counseling department for support as well. Some students can go to their counselors for support and advice on all aspects of their lives. However, these meetings are almost exclusively conducted in person. 

Sadly, it is much more complicated to address the mental health needs of students than it is their educational needs through virtual learning. The relief that the in-person school environment provides is impossible to replicate at home, especially with the cancellation of most of the extracurriculars as well. The clubs and extracurriculars that have managed to continue virtually have been a vital outlet for students, with activities ranging from virtual business pitches to online scavenger hunts. These activities offer a sense of normality during this  unprecedented time. These clubs, however, seem to be few and far between, as many clubs simply aren’t adaptable to a distance format. Similarly, the counseling department is based on in-person interactions, making the transition difficult. On top of this, counselors are already responsible for so much (academic, college, administrative duties) in addition to their duty to support students. With the added workload that Corona has introduced, their plate has become overcrowded, making it increasingly more difficult for a student to reach out to a counselor for help, or a counselor to notice a student in need. The consequence of these different factors results in many students having been left isolated during the transition to online schooling. 

Our migration from schools to the safety of our homes has other important implications, however. To realize this, let’s walk through a morning routine for a typical student.. You wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then, depending on your situation, you take the bus bus to school. Then, as you enter, you ask how the security guard standing by the bus loop is doing. After that, you pass a janitor mopping up a leftover spill before the first period. Finally, as you walk into your class, you see the IT guy helping your teacher with their projector. This illuminates how much goes into just arriving to school, not to mention all the other aspects that keep a school building running. According to the MCPS Fiscal Year 2020 Operating Budget, Montgomery County Public Schools spent over $366 million on operations alone this past year, including transportation, facilities management, and school safety and security. But because of Corona, we aren’t going to school. We aren’t taking buses to our living rooms or bedrooms, and we don’t need security for our zoom calls. So where is this money going now? 

Though Montgomery County hasn’t released any specific information on how the Coronavirus has affected their spending, we can imagine that in most counties a majority has gone into funding distance learning. COVID-19 left many school districts stranded as students and staff were forced to stay at home. Nobody had prepared for, or even expected, this outcome just three months before, leaving schools scrambling for any technology that could provide their students with a decent education. Schools paid Zoom to be able to hold lectures and used applications like Google classroom to organize assignments, which is not inexpensive. In addition, many school districts like Montgomery County had to provide laptops and/or hotspots to students who didn’t have their own. But this is old news, we all know this. This happened months ago as schools first made the transition. Now, as we approach the beginning of the school year, schools are (hopefully) more prepared and organized. They made the changes already. So where are the excess Operating funds going now?

Of course, much of this will still have to be diverted to virtual learning and the facilitation of that (through laptops, hotspots, etc.). But schools are much more prepared than they were months ago, and so this will take much less of a financial burden. It's important, now, to think about how this excess money could be used more effectively to benefit students. Again, if we look at Montgomery County’s expenditures, we see that they allocated about 28 million to student services and engagement. This includes counselors and school psychologists, i.e. the resources that schools provide to support their students’ mental health and wellbeing. Something to consider here is the funds that are diverted to mental health is less than 1/12 of what goes into operations. Using just 8% of the unneeded funding that goes into operations could double the resources that students are offered in Montgomery County. 

It is incredibly important to invest in students' mental health, especially during such a stressful and uncertain time. More counselors, more psychologists, more resources for the counseling department are crucial in a time where students are being isolated from prior pillars of support. Currently, many counselors simply do not have the bandwidth to check in on students, or even notice if a student needs to be checked in on. Many students across the country lack a school psychologist to even talk to. There aren’t effective systems in place for students to reach out for help; these are problems. So much went into our educational and distance learning needs, but what about our mental health? And a huge amount of research shows that stress and anxiety affects our ability to learn, so the two investments are really more interconnected than we think. If schools want to help students learn from a distance, one of the best ways they can do so is to invest more in mental health support. There needs to be more staff to dilute the intense workload that counselors face, giving them more time to address the needs of students. There need to be more psychologists, when many schools don’t have a full-time, or even a part-time psychologist. There needs to be more resources and systems that encourage a student to reach out when they need. The status quo is that most students are confused about who to talk to or where to go. This is unacceptable. It’s time we start investing in our students; we have the money, what’s the excuse not to?

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