Education Funding

School Districts Are Starting to Spend COVID Relief Funds. The Hard Part Is Deciding How

By Mark Lieberman — December 01, 2021 8 min read
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District leaders and school business officials are scrambling to allocate significant, and in some cases unprecedented, sums of money while navigating complex bureaucratic hurdles and a public health crisis that continues to bear down on people and institutions across America.

Plans for the $122 billion in federal funds K-12 schools received from Congress this spring are starting to come into focus, thanks to a new analysis of hundreds of school districts’ spending plans. The emerging picture is a widely varied and still-evolving landscape that encompasses everything from summer school programs and expanded staffing to HVAC upgrades and technology purchases, as well as some scattered quirkier items that may test the federal government’s intentions for the funds specifically to help schools recover from the effects of the pandemic.

Some districts are investing big money in initiatives that don’t appear at first glance strictly COVID-related. Miami-Dade schools plan to spend $30 million, or $86 per student, on cybersecurity. Raleigh County schools in West Virginia lists a $9 million effort—more than $800 per student—to expand an elementary school, adding nine classrooms, upgrading the library, expanding the kitchen, and separating the cafeteria and the gym. The Newport News school district in Virginia is spending $840,000 for a new student information system to help teachers catalog students’ academic progress.

At least one school district is directing some portion of its funds to the following initiatives:

  • Employee benefits
  • Gifted and talented programs
  • Booster groups and parent-teacher organizations
  • Insurance
  • Wi-Fi on school buses
  • Vape detectors
  • E-sports equipment
  • Lunch program refunds
  • Ultraviolet lights for disease mitigation
  • Student ID cards
  • Tennis courts

The wide range of priorities reflects that another year of swirling chaos presents an enormous range of needs and challenges districts are looking to tackle with the influx of emergency cash, which expires in 2024. Staff shortages, COVID outbreaks, political disputes over masking and vaccination, and the academic and emotional upheaval wrought by many months of pandemic-era schooling are among the issues weighing on schools’ wallets. Districts are scrambling to make hasty spending decisions on goods and services that fall outside their usual scope.

Those are all piling atop the usual challenges of providing adequate services for disadvantaged students, working through a backlog of building maintenance needs, hiring and retaining qualified employees, and expanding services to meet society’s increasing expectations for K-12 schools.

But with three more years left to obligate the funds, the overall impact of President Biden’s federal COVID relief package on student’ lives and schools’ fiscal health may not be clear for a while—especially because districts have already had to pivot plans to deal with rapidly evolving conditions.

The relief aid was distributed through the federal Title I aid formula, which aims to direct more funds to schools with large numbers of high-need students. As a result, some school districts got more than $10,000 per student from the federal government, while others got less than $100 per student—or, in more rare cases, nothing at all.

Districts are required to spend at least 20 percent of the funds on efforts to address “learning loss.” For the remaining funds, they have broad discretion, as long as they can indicate that their spending is geared toward recovering from the pandemic. States will be monitoring districts’ spending, and some may get audited by the federal government, but the funds aren’t contingent on outcomes of any kind.

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Dezirae Espinoza wears a face mask while holding a tube of cleaning wipes as she waits to enter Garden Place Elementary School in Denver for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic.
David Zalubowski/AP

Spending plans that have taken shape so far could continue to change as districts adjust to continuously evolving conditions.
“In three years, the districts that have the highest return on investment for these funds are going to be the ones that improved best, not the ones that had the best plan in May 2021,” said Jonathan Travers, partner at Education Resource Strategies, a school finance consulting firm that works with districts on strategies for equitable spending.

Some districts already have had to scale back or revamp plans they drafted earlier this year because current staff members are feeling burned out and incapable of taking on new responsibilities, said Travers.

In other cases, plans are changing because schools can’t find enough job candidates to realize their ambitions for expanding social-emotional support or tutoring. Staffing shortages for a variety of positions are crushing schools this fall, leading to sporadic closures and widespread angst among current staff members.

Stephanie LeBlanc, instructional strategist at Greeley Middle School in Cumberland Center, Maine.
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“A lot of this fall has been about understanding what’s actually going to be possible,” Travers said.

How spending is shaking out so far

The data tracking firm Burbio, most known recently for its efforts to track whether schools were in remote or hybrid mode during the peak of the pandemic, has tabulated ESSER III spending plans from roughly 8 percent of the nation’s school districts—to be exact, 1,036 districts in three dozen states.

The firm collects spending data from districts in bulk when states publish all of their districts’ plans, and it also conducts regular sweeps of the nation’s largest school districts for updates on their spending plans.

“It’s a very labor-intensive process” because deadlines and procedures for spending plans vary considerably from state to state, said Dennis Roche, president of Burbio.

The firm’s findings so far offer a messy and non-comprehensive, but informative and revealing snapshot of districts’ current spending decisions.

Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the spending details that have emerged so far is the lack of clarity that will prove daunting for national observers tracking school districts’ approaches to spending federal funds. Some districts’ spending plans include specific dollar amounts, while others only show a check mark to indicate that a category is among their fiscal priorities. Some districts’ plans include detailed descriptions, while others only indicated allocations for broad categories like transportation, staffing, and technology.

The U.S. Department of Education is publishing state spending plans on its website, but the federal government is leaving detailed tracking of districts’ plans to each state.

Priorities for the funds, according to Burbio’s data, are widespread, with no single category represented among more than 60 percent of school districts’ posted plans. Among the most common initiatives cited: after-school and summer school programs; staffing for key positions like teachers, academic interventionists, guidance counselors, and mental health professionals; and HVAC upgrades.

Technology is also a big focus: Roughly a third of districts in Burbio’s data set are using the funds to purchase mobile devices like tablets for students, and a similar percentage of districts is investing in instructional software.

Virus mitigation remains a big focus in light of the still-prominent Delta variant of COVID-19, with slightly less than a third of school districts included in the Burbio data spending ESSER III funds on personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer. Around 40 of the analyzed districts allocated more than $100 per student toward those items.

Schools can spend widely, and they are already starting to do so

Even within commonly cited categories of spending, investments look very different from one district to the next. For HVAC systems, some districts are spending only $14,000, while several others are investing $40 million. More than 100 districts are spending between $1 million and $10 million on HVAC, and a couple dozen are spending between $14,000 and $150,000.

Ever since the federal government directed massive sums of money to school districts in three bursts totaling $200 billion during the pandemic, district leaders, policymakers, and advocates have fiercely debated whether the money will go toward initiatives that make a meaningful positive difference in students’ lives.

Those debates are beginning to reach a new gear as school districts publicize plans for the third and largest sum of federal money, from the American Rescue Plan relief package Congress approved in March of this year. During a congressional hearing this month, lawmakers from both parties emphasized to U.S. Department of Education officials that they expect thorough monitoring of districts’ plans to ensure they’re spending funds wisely.

In three years, the districts that have the highest return on investment for these funds are going to be the ones that improved best, not the ones that had the best plan in May 2021.

The Burbio data illustrate the wide variety of approaches schools are taking.

Schools are facing pressure to address the ripple effects of an unprecedented crisis while simultaneously making smart investments with short-term funds and broad flexibility for spending them. Pleasing everyone will be an uphill battle—in Oklahoma, for instance, some districts are struggling to solicit feedback from a wide-enough swath of the community on initial priorities for American Rescue Plan spending.

Similar to the Burbio survey, an analysis by Travers’ firm of two dozen predominantly low-income, rural districts found most of those districts haven’t yet made plans for “fundamentally improving the teaching job,” even as concerns of teacher burnout and frustration with the shortcomings of the job persist. Options for more innovative steps, according to Education Resource Strategies, include reassigning nonessential tasks, providing meaningful professional support connected to the curriculum, and designing new learning models in partnership with outside organizations like community colleges.

That doesn’t mean those plans for improving teaching won’t eventually materialize. In the short term, though, Travers worries that pressure to spend money effectively are having a “stifling” effect on schools that want to be both prudent and responsive.

“Sometimes I worry that these conversations lose track of the fact that we’re trying to figure out how to respond to 12 to 18 months of learning disruption,” he said.

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