School districts are just beginning to receive estimates for the federal funds they can expect from the most recent $130 billion stimulus package approved by Congress and signed last month by President Joe Biden, on top of $13.5 billion last March and $57 billion last December. Now, the tough work begins: what to spend it on, and how quickly.
At first glance, there’s no shortage of priorities. The American K-12 system is only beginning to emerge from its most unusual and difficult year ever. Instructional models were upended overnight; new expenses like masks, personal protective equipment, and laptops for emergency remote learning demanded immediate investment; millions of students have spent little to no time in the physical classroom since last spring.
For some districts, new federal relief could go a long way in digging out from all those challenges, and addressing all the pressing concerns that existed long before COVID. Here’s an early look—based on interviews with district leaders, school budget officials, and school finance researchers— at the key items on which districts currently plan to spend.
Making up lost instructional time. Recent studies suggest students have spent far less time learning during the pandemic than they did before, and that those losses of instructional time have been greater for Black, Latinx, and low-income students. Districts are pondering a wide array of approaches to tackling that issue: extending the current school year, adding days to the next school year, expanding the number of hours in a school day; targeting tutoring programs to students with the greatest needs. Many of these efforts will require hiring new staff or paying existing staff for a larger-than-usual workload.
Providing enrichment and emotional support. The pandemic has forced students to spend considerable time online and indoors, without the social interactions and new experiences that keep their lives engaging and meaningful. Schools have shifted in recent years to focus more closely on “social-emotional learning,” rather than simply focusing on instructional content. Some districts are planning to double down on that commitment by expanding mental health resources, like on-site counselors, and crafting summer activity programs, like field trips and interactive camp experiences, to provide students with some joy, not just lessons.
The newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, has endorsed these efforts, telling Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa that mental health services ideally would be “baked into the DNA of schools as a core service.”
Expanding technology capabilities. Schools have made significant progress in the last year on providing students with the technology tools they need to learn from home. Several states—Connecticut, Texas, and New Jersey among them—have declared that the digital divide has been closed, with regard to laptops and tablets.
But millions of families continue to struggle to pay steep internet bills or, in some areas, even get service at all. And an increasing number of digital devices will need repairs in the coming years. With some schools preparing to keep offering remote learning even when it’s no longer a public health necessity, districts are learning lessons from the chaos of early 2020 and bumping technology investments higher on the priority list than ever before.
Building new and safer facilities. Some districts used the first round of federal funds to pay for things they needed immediately, like masks and other personal protective equipment to guard against COVID-19 spread. The larger doses of money from the second and third rounds of pandemic aid look substantial enough for some districts to get started on construction projects they’d been putting off, or improving outdated ventilation systems.
Steven Johnson, superintendent of the rural Lisbon district in North Dakota, is currently planning to use federal dollars to expand career-technical education spaces. The longer leash of four years districts have to spend the most recent federal stimulus package allows for longer-term strategic planning, he said. “You buy a Chromebook and in three years it’s gone. You renovate a shop area, add 2500 square feet, that’s going to be there for 30 years,” he said.
A proposed massive federal investment in infrastructure, if passed this summer, could provide an additional windfall for schools.
Improving special education services. Students with disabilities were hit particularly hard by extended periods of remote learning; many weren’t able to access the one-on-one services their school typically provides in person. Schools already spend heavily on special education services, but many advocates believe those investments haven’t gone far enough. Several districts told Education Week they’re going to spend federal funds not only to hire new staff members, but to provide more robust training to teachers and aides who already know the students with special needs.