FARMINGTON, Ill. (WMBD) – COVID-19 relief funds are still widely available for schools. In fact, the grant money can be utilized through the 2022-23 school year.

How have these funds helped schools respond to the societal changes caused by the pandemic? And how will the money continue to fill gaps left after the 2020 lockdowns?

Farmington Central CUSD#265 is located in rural Central Illinois, where the needs are different for their students compared to bigger school districts, like Peoria Public Schools.

“We’ve been able to offer opportunities that we normally wouldn’t be able to offer for our students and staff,” said Superintendent Zac Chatterton.  

That said, there are many universal problems schools are facing.

“So a lot of us are challenged with the shortage of staff. Whether it be teachers or support staff,” he said. “So one of the big things we were able to do is add full-time subs, so we have continuity of sub staffing here, and they get to know the students better.”

The school was also able to add “interventionists” to staff, and Chatterton said they had a national speaker visit the school to address the social-emotional needs of students.

“The first day, the speaker was able to work with staff about what students might be experiencing at home and here at school, to give them a little bit more of a perspective on what our students might be coming to school with, he said. “That was extremely beneficial.”

To Chatterton, social-emotional needs are “really about relationship building and being able to know your students outside of the academic arena.”

One way they are trying to achieve this is through the new ride-along program the social workers and counselors started at Farmington.

“Staff now ride buses with students home, voluntary, just to get to know them in a more relaxed setting. Being able to talk and socialize with them while they’re on the bus ride. That’s been extremely beneficial as well.”

He said it is hard to determine whether students’ social-emotional needs are being met fully and whether the school is successful in making up for all the learning loss students experienced from remote learning.

But, he said, they are going in the right direction.

“I  think the awareness and the acknowledgment that what’s going on in their lives away from school is so impactful of their learning is the first step,” Chatterton said. “Just the fact that we’re able to acknowledge that these challenges are going on for our students and be able to develop more of a relationship with students, after the lack of relationship with students for so long, has been very, very influential. 

Schools still have time to utilize COVID-19 relief funds during the 2022-23 school year. Chatterton said there is speculation that the timeframe may even be extended. 

For Chatterton, it is uncertain what the school district will be able to retain when the relief funding expires. He said staff wants to keep some hallmark programs, saying, “We’ll figure out a way to fund it.”

What relief is ending? Two free meals a day for students. 

The meals themselves are not expensive– roughly in the $2-3 range– but that can add up quickly for families, especially with multiple children. 

Chatterton said the families in the school district were “very appreciative” to have their children fed for free at school. 

With federal free meals ending at the end of June, it is still uncertain what kind of impact that will have on schools, whether in rural communities like Farmington or more urban communities like Peoria.