By Dr. Stiles Simmons, Superintendent of Westwood Community School District

In March 2020, schools across the world went quiet. No more bells were ringing.

No cafeterias filled with children building life-long friendships. Laughter was lost in the classrooms and early morning drop-offs were no more.

Despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic, we felt a great sense of community and pride as we saw neighbors come together to protect the health and wellbeing of others.

Today, students returning for the 2022-23 school year will have a normal back-to-school experience for the first time since the pandemic started.

Students and teachers will interact face-to-face without masks, extracurriculars and sports will continue as scheduled, and the community will be welcomed back into school buildings from the very first day of school.

While there is much to celebrate this year, we know that our schools are still feeling the impact of the pandemic, particularly our most vulnerable students. Studies show the pandemic left students across the country on average five months behind in math learning and four months behind in reading.

This learning loss further widens the preexisting achievement gaps that historically impact students of color the most.

To help schools get students back on track academically and emotionally after the pandemic—an effort that will take years to properly address—the federal government provided one-time emergency relief, or ESSER, funding.

Through the CARES Act, schools in Michigan have received $1.2 billion in ESSER funding. Using these critical dollars, schools have been able to make critical building upgrades, hire new staff, purchase PPE equipment, create new programs to support student mental health, and more.

At Westwood Community School District, ESSER funds have made it possible for the district to invest in its buildings, equipment, staff and security measures. These investments include installing ventilators in every classroom, replacing water fountains with water filling stations, providing Chromebooks to every student, and hiring additional staff to meet the social and emotional needs of students

Though this funding was necessary and surely beneficial, it is only temporary.

The truth is that years of disinvestment have left Michigan’s schools underfunded and in a vulnerable position. It’s going to take years of funding investments to get our students and teachers on the best path to success.

This year, Governor Whitmer and our representatives in Lansing passed a historic School Aid Budget that will provide districts with much-needed funding so they can continue providing the same level of support and resources when ESSER funding runs out. Under the recently signed budget, districts will have more funding for at-risk students, special education, mental health programming, teacher retention, school safety and more.

As we head into the 2022-23 school year in high spirits because of the School Aid Budget and the first sense of classroom normalcy in more than two years, it’s also important to remember there are still challenges ahead. Only with the full support of our communities will educators be able to meet these challenges. We are grateful for the support we have received over the past two years and hope that we can continue to work together to benefit our children for years to come.

Here’s wishing everyone a happy, healthy, safe and successful 2022-23 school year.