Education Funding

Why School Leaders Are Sweating the Deadline for Spending COVID Relief Funds

By Mark Lieberman — January 25, 2022 2 min read
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As the president, federal lawmakers, and critical media coverage ramp up pressure on schools to quickly spend the $195 billion in federal pandemic aid they received in 2020 and 2021, school administrators are pushing back with an unexpected message: We need more time.

A coalition of nearly three dozen school, health, and environmental advocacy groups, led by AASA, the School Superintendents’ Association, last week sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona asking the department to consider extending the deadline for spending COVID relief funds on construction and capital improvements projects.

The current deadline for spending all of the COVID relief funds is September 2024—more than four years after the pandemic began taking a toll on school operations and causing all manner of disruption for students and staff alike. Congress approved the aid in three waves in March 2020, December 2020, and March 2021.

School administrators say they want until December 2026 to spend federal funds on improving ventilation; fixing roofs, windows, and doors; and modernizing classrooms to account for the oncoming effects of climate change. Districts are competing over the same finite set of contractors and materials, leading to price hikes and shipping delays that are likely to persist for a while, school leaders say.

Facilities have long been a major area of need for the U.S. school system, whose buildings are increasingly dilapidated as state and local funding for construction falls billions of dollars short of the necessary work. The federal government last year dangled the possibility of dedicated funding for school infrastructure as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, but those funds ultimately fell out of negotiations for the still-languishing bill.

The list of districts’ priorities for federal funds is long and varied: everything from expanded instructional programming and curriculum materials to increased salaries and recruitment bonuses for educators; new laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for students; and masks and other personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some districts got thousands of dollars per student, while others got far less.

Determining how much federal funding schools have spent so far is nearly impossible to do without lots of guesswork. Some districts may have committed to investing in salaries for people that will only be fully paid out by the end of the school year. Others are mixing federal funds with other sources to piece together investments.

Some districts have been wary of using federal funds for ongoing initiatives or positions, which they might have to cut or downsize once again when the funds run out. A similar situation after the Great Recession caught many school districts off guard.

Read this explainer from me and my colleague Andrew Ujifusa that describes how the COVID funds work, how schools can use them, and how their effectiveness will be assessed.

Consult this table to see how much each district in the United States got from three rounds of federal emergency aid.

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