State School Superintendent Richard Woods talks to reporters at a news conference last year. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Full funding of student enrollment growth after a year of budget cuts would come as a great relief to Georgia’s public schools, the state’s top K-12 education official said Tuesday.

Many schools are still holding classes online to discourage the spread of COVID-19, a challenge for teachers pushing to keep students from falling behind on their coursework, State School Superintendent Richard Woods told Georgia lawmakers during a hearing on Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget recommendation for the state Department of Education.

“The learning loss continues to be something that we’re going to look at,” Woods said. “We’re committed to make sure that no child falls behind in our state.”

The governor is calling on the General Assembly to restore about 60% of $950 million cut from this year’s K-12 education budget due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

 Enrollment is down by about 36,000 students in schools across the state, though Woods said officials are still trying to determine those numbers. He said younger pupils likely account for most of the enrollment drop.

 The pandemic showed an estimated 80,000 households statewide with children in schools lack reliable internet access, Woods said. State officials have tapped federal coronavirus relief funds to install WiFi signal extenders on local school buildings and around 3,000 school buses in a bid to close the internet gap, he said.

Georgia school districts have also served more than 111 million meals to students with help from food banks since March, making local schools “probably the largest food-delivery service in the state,” Woods said.

 On top of restoring the cuts, Woods has asked lawmakers for more money to pay school counselors.

 “The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that addressing students’ mental and physical health and wellbeing is an urgent need,” he said.

Woods also requested $5 million to cover costs for schools to administer year-end tests after federal officials denied Georgia’s request to skip the tests this year because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

With state tax revenues coming in stronger than expected during the current pandemic-driven recession, Kemp also is recommending full funding for enrollment growth at Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

The governor’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 budget proposal includes a net increase of $131.4 million in the University System of Georgia’s operating budget. The system’s capital budget earmarks $104.2 million in bond funding for seven major building projects on campuses across the state.

Legislative budget writers also heard Tuesday from Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, who asked for $780,000 to increase starting salaries for middle managers and rank-and-file employees in his agency.

“These heroes put on masks and went to work every day,” he said. “They didn’t stop.”

Black also requested $453,000 for Georgia’s hemp farming program. The General Assembly legalized the growing, processing and transport of hemp two years ago.

Black said the program has drawn a lot of interest from farmers but needs more funding to reach its potential.

“We’ve got to allocate the resources to make sure this program can grow,” he said.

Tuesday kicked off three days of hearings this week on Kemp’s budget recommendations. Members of the Georgia House and Senate Appropriations committees will continue hearing from department heads on Wednesday and Thursday.