To the editor:
Since the pandemic began, the federal government has been granting substantial amounts of money to school districts. [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund] I the first year, ESSER II the second year, and ESSER III for this year and next year.
In response to a School Committee request, Joan Liporto, Amesbury’s finance director, has produced a comprehensive accounting of how that money was used. In Amesbury, ESSER I was $217,534, ESSER II was $835,787 and ESSER III is $1,927,437 for a total of $2,980,758.
The money was spent almost entirely in five different categories. About $575,000 went to mental health services, about $700,000 was spent on technology, both hardware and software. Professional development accounted for around $500,000, math was allocated a little less than $250,000, and the big winner, coming in around $800,000, was literacy.
These are the most anodyne allocations imaginable. Their validity rests on the assumption that the current educational paradigm is optimal, and our best policy is to enhance it.
My problem is that, based on what I know, I have no confidence in that assumption. I know there is a causal relation between increased social media consumption and decreased mental health, and there is a positive correlation between increased screen time and decreased mental health. So the inference is that as technology use increases, which this budget supports, mental health outcomes will worsen, which this budget addresses.
This is the budgetary equivalent of a snake eating its tail. We put more time and money emphasis on technology, and one outcome is we have to put more time and money emphasis on mental health.
This might be a worthwhile tradeoff if educational outcomes were improved by the technology, but that is debatable.
In fact, studies at multiple institutions, including West Point and Harvard University, have found that teaching and learning were better in a pencil and paper environment than in a purely technological environment.
We know that technology is a double-edged sword but because we are afraid of falling behind we ignore the downside. We can and should change that. We know that creation and enjoyment of art and music enhance mental health. We know that physical activity and connecting to people around us do the same. For the sake of the kids, it’s time we flipped the script, pulled our children aside, and let the bulldozer that is technology pass them by.