Districts are faced with many issues, including labor-intensive paperwork and regulations, leading to slow spending of COVID relief funding.

What’s keeping districts from spending COVID relief funding?

School leaders are faced with a number of issues, including labor-intensive paperwork and regulations, leading to slow COVID relief spending

“The spending is often delayed one year from the allocation to set up effective systems and oversight. School districts know they will be audited by the state or federal government, so they are being extra careful to make sure all of the dollars are properly monitored,” Finch added.

In Missouri’s Grandview C-4 School District, ESSER III funds were not allocated by state lawmakers until the end of February 2022, and districts struggled to navigate two different messages–one from the federal government urging them to spend their relief funds, and one from the state government telling them to hold off.

“You want to spend it deliberately–you want the best bang for your buck. That was a challenge. We weren’t able to really start spending until the last couple months of this school year. We were one of the last states to actually approve those funds and get them disbursed,” said Rodrequez.

What’s more, paperwork throws a curveball at districts that are already short-staffed and over-burdened.

District leaders have to review proposals, determine contracts, hire teachers and staff, all while abiding by federal rules, according to a Brookings report.

Staff shortages are problematic, as is retaining additional staff when funding expires

Teacher burnout, mass resignations, and staff shortages have hampered schools’ ability to retain staff and to support students as they returned for their first full year of in-person learning since the pandemic began.

“Because of COVID-19 burnout, low pay, and staff exhaustion from the charged political environment, schools are having trouble finding staff who want to go the extra mile in after-school, intervention programming, or summer school,” Finch said.

And while COVID relief funding can be allocated to hire additional staff, the funding expires in September 2024–and many district leaders are unsure if their districts will be able to afford to keep those staff on board after that time.

Strategies to address learning loss, mental health, and student well-being are labor-intensive

ESSER III requires districts to set aside at least 20 percent of the funding they receive to address learning loss.

“We could have just spent millions of dollars, but we’re trying to be as deliberate as possible, especially with that 20 percent–it’s going to be more for us, that academic piece, that learning loss. We’re looking critically at the gaps we have,” Rodrequez said.

“Staffing is a challenge, and across the country, you’re hearing the same thing. There also are fewer people entering the profession,” he added, noting that his district is adding supports for staff to help prevent burnout and offer more flexibility.

An analysis from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) notes that “high-quality teachers, tutors, counselors and mental health professionals are in short supply and face intense demand for their services. Districts that often compete against each other for educators now also compete with the health care system for mental health professionals. Even strategies that draw on existing labor, such as extended learning time, require teachers to work longer hours. For some teachers, the additional stipends to teach longer days aren’t worth it.”

NCSL also offers more insight into each state’s funding status here.

Laura Ascione

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