Budget & Finance

Schools Had Plans for Federal Relief Aid. The Delta Variant Upended Them

By Mark Lieberman — August 30, 2021 5 min read
Orchard Knob Middle School Assistant Principal Michael Calloway squirts sanitizer onto students hands as they arrive for the first day of school at Orchard Knob Middle School, in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.
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Some school districts are revamping their plans for the federal relief money they received during the pandemic as COVID-19 surges from the Delta variant are posing a bigger threat than expected this school year.

In some places, plans for HVAC upgrades, technology purchases, and learning enrichment programs are giving way to anticipated costs for human resources personnel, nurses and medical workers, masks and other personal protective equipment, and substitute teachers.

Federal lawmakers crafted the three aid packages—in March 2020, December 2020, and March 2021—to help schools recover the costs of mitigating the spread of the virus and supporting students academically and emotionally as they return to classrooms.

Earlier this summer, as districts began to get spending plans on track, the virus outlook was sunny. More than half of American adults had been vaccinated, case numbers were dropping precipitously, and new CDC guidance allowed vaccinated people across the country to shed masks, even indoors.

But a more transmissible strain of the virus grew dominant, vaccination rates ground to a halt, and hospitals in some parts of the country began to fill up like they did during the pandemic’s previous peaks. School communities are now embroiled in passionate debates over masks, state lawmakers have restricted many remote learning options,, and COVID-related costs are beginning to pile up.

Here are three ways districts are altering their stimulus spending plans:

Hiring more nurses to manage the hefty workload for contact tracing

In Illinois, a statewide mask mandate has had an unexpected side effect. In the Maine Township High School district, because all students will be wearing masks regardless of vaccination status, unvaccinated students who get exposed to COVID-19 won’t have to quarantine at home for 10 to 14 days as they did last school year. Instead, they’ll get tested at school at several points in the week after an exposure. If their test is negative, they can stay in school.

This plan will keep fewer students from missing classroom instruction—but after the first day of school last week, it’s clear to superintendent Ken Wallace that the district needs more help contact-tracing and testing students.

“The buildings are saying, ‘We’re overwhelmed,’” Wallace said. “It’s taking nurses who have a million other things to do right now away from their job.”

One of those other jobs, Wallace said, is combing through a state database by searching for one student’s name at a time to determine whether or not they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Once we get through that, we won’t need that service anymore,” Wallace said. “The contact tracing, we can see right away we’re going to need help for that.”

Adding one nurse in each of the 6,400-student district’s three buildings would add at least $250,000, or roughly $40 per student, to the district’s expenses, Wallace said.

Using federal funds to cover that expense could cut into planned investments in HVAC improvements, lunch programs, and learning enrichment activities, Wallace said. Finding employees willing to join the team will also be a challenge, even with money available.

One big thing out of the district’s control could help alleviate this problem, Wallace said: “Frankly, the way to not need stimulus money, at least at the level that we currently do, is getting everybody vaccinated.”

Adding HR capacity to help staff understand rapidly shifting COVID policies

Brian Woods, superintendent of the roughly 100,000-student Northside district in San Antonio, Texas, expects ongoing costs of $1 million to $2 million (between $10 and $20 per student) this school year for personal protective equipment and enhanced cleaning. In addition, schools will need to spend $1 million more than usual on human resources staff to answer complex questions from teachers and other employees about COVID-related leave and quarantine procedures.

After seeing more than 1,500 students out sick or on required quarantine after the second day of school, district leaders are also in the process of trying to spend $3 million to hire more nurses for contact tracing, but candidates have been hard to find so far.

“Operating in the current environment looks a lot like the 2020-21 school year,” Woods wrote in an email.

There’s an even bigger concern looming, though.

“Frankly, the way to not need stimulus money, at least at the level that we currently do, is getting everybody vaccinated.”

Early numbers suggest the district’s enrollment has declined once again this school year, and those declines are steeper among students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Woods estimates enrollment declines could cost the district somewhere between $15 million and $30 million, or $150 to $300 per student, out of its $940 million annual budget.

Federal relief funds may end up having to stem losses in state and local funding that could otherwise lead to layoffs, Woods said. And the requirement to devote 20 percent of American Rescue Plan funds to mitigating learning loss will be harder to meet than expected.

Maintaining staffing in a competitive, unpredictable market

Darren Harris, business administrator of the Pittsgrove, Commercial Township, and Woodbine districts in New Jersey, is feeling the pressures of the job market on top of the escalation of the virus. Schools across the country are attempting to hire lots of new workers with the money they’ve received during the pandemic, even as people may be reluctant or unable to work due to the ongoing spread of the virus.

The district, like many around the country, is struggling to find employees for open positions in roles like substitute teachers, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals. Hourly rates for substitute teachers will increase from $20.25 to $22; for paraprofessionals and custodians from roughly $13.50 to roughly $15.50; and child care workers from $12.98 to $15.

Those higher hourly wages will raise expenditures for the district. But for the federal stimulus dollars specifically, Harris is more concerned about a recently approved state law that allows some students over the age of 21 to enroll in an extra year of instruction to make up for the time lost during pandemic-driven school building closures.

The district pays “tuition” for each of those students to attend a specialized program or school. Depending on the number of students taking advantage of that extra year, the district may have to dip into American Rescue Plan funds and shortchange HVAC improvement efforts in the process, Harris said.

Purchasing more masks, cleaning supplies, and HEPA filters has also cut into plans for the federal relief dollars, but not significantly, Harris said.

Administrators for the Staunton district in Virginia had been planning big purchases of technology and instructional supplies. Now some portion of those funds will instead pay hourly wages for substitutes and overtime pay for full-time employees.

“We generally assumed that we would be using the money to repair the damage caused by the pandemic and to improve the systems to better mitigate future pandemics,” said Brad Wegner, the district’s budget director. “It now seems that we have to shift back to triage mode to prevent this school year from being lost.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as Schools Had Plans for Federal Relief Aid. The Delta Variant Upended Them

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