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Montana to Use Federal Relief Funds to Combat Learning Loss

The state’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief plan will spend federal funds on technology access, studying student performance, telehealth counseling and other resources to combat learning loss.

montana state capitol
Montana state Capitol
Montana will put $127 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds toward new resources for students experiencing learning loss during the pandemic, according to a news release last week from the U.S. Department of Education announcing their approval of state plans.

State and federal education officials said the funding will help gather new data to identify students whose learning has been most affected by the pandemic and to gauge student access to technology, among other metrics. The state will also devote funds to after-school and summer school programs geared toward improving student performance and fulfilling technology needs.

The Montana plan is among the latest approved by the Department of Education, alongside similar programs centered on student learning in Hawaii, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania, sponsored by the American Rescue Plan's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.

“The approval of these plans enables states to receive vital, additional American Rescue Plan funds to quickly and safely reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning; meet students’ academic, social, emotional and mental health needs; and address disparities in access to educational opportunity that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic,” Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said in a public statement.

Julie Murgel, senior manager of Montana’s Department of School Innovation and Improvement, said changing routines during the pandemic negatively affected student performance and emotional health, even as many students returned to in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year.

Murgel pointed to the state’s Opportunity to Learn surveys conducted in May, which found 59 percent of student respondents said policies such as social distancing made learning more difficult for them.

She said 70 percent of the 4,500 student respondents had to quarantine “at least once” during the previous school year, and about half of them more than once. At the same time, about 75 percent of teachers reported switching from in-person to remote learning at least once last year due to potential COVID-19 exposure.

“All of these factors meant that most students in Montana experienced fluctuations to their learning environment and structures, which impacted their learning in 2021,” she said in an email to Government Technology.

Murgel said officials hope to gain a more precise and localized understanding of the scope of such impacts through Montana’s statewide data system, looking at chronic absenteeism, suspensions, learning opportunities and student access to mental health services, among other data points. The state Office of Public Instruction will also examine ed-tech needs of school districts, such as student and teacher technology access, to determine where to send funds.

Murgel said officials plan to work with community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, local libraries and others to implement “extended day learning and enrichment programs.” In addition, she said, the state will establish its first student film festival in the summer of 2022, complete with after-school workshops to encourage interest in digital media and communication.

Much of the federal funding will be flexible to accommodate specific local needs. Murgel said those could include digital learning tools, as well as additional counseling services for students in person or via telehealth programs.

“As evidenced by stakeholder input, mental health supports were identified as the top need,” she said. “At this time, we do not have data yet to report the use of telehealth.”

The funding builds upon prior allocations from the American Rescue Plan Act devoted specifically to COVID-19 testing in schools, for which Montana received $32 million.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.