2020 and 2021 saw $190 billion in federal relief funds go to schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).
But why aren’t schools spending the money? The answer–or, more accurately, answers–offers a glimpse into the complicated state of post-COVID education.
Districts received funds based on their Title I funding, and ESSER funds must be spent by September 2024. While many districts have planned how they’ll use their funding, they have not actually spent it to date.
COVID continues to throw a wrench in plans
New COVID variants causing new waves of infections have continued to complicate districts’ plans.
According to a report from AASA, superintendents must collaborate with numerous stakeholders as they develop spending plans. While they’re able to reconsider spending decisions, it’s complicated–many districts may wait until late spring when they must finalize local budgets to reconsider or adjust their ARP spending priorities as well.
The AASA report notes that “the Delta and Omicron variant complicated many districts’ plans to potentially shift gears in the 2022-23 school year since learning recovery efforts were complicated during the fall and winter of 2021 due to labor shortages, short-term school closures and the need to continue investing heavily in PPE and other pandemic-related supplies and needs.”
Continued waves of infection have forced many districts to alternate between in-person, hybrid, and fully-online learning. Many districts still have not fully assessed where learning gaps exist and what students need to catch up academically, emotionally, and socially. Until a clearer pictures emerges–a picture that constantly changes as COVID changes–spending COVID relief funds to close learning gaps remains unpredictable.
“We’ve spent all of this year determining where the gaps are, what our kids did or didn’t learn during the closures, what they need now, what the social and emotional issues are, and where the challenges to their learning are,” said Dr. Kenny Rodrequez, superintendent of Missouri’s Grandview C-4 School District.
“We had a good plan, and a pretty good idea, but we had to continually plan and adjust based on what we saw with our kids. You’re making a plan for something that’s constantly in motion and constantly changing,” he said.
Supply chain issues make it difficult to spend the funds before their September 2024 expiration
AASA’s report also notes that districts are having trouble spending their relief funds on HVAC and capital improvements in school and district buildings. A majority of district leaders say they plan to use the funding for such improvements, but more than half say using the funds for infrastructure and HVAC upgrades will be difficult given supply chain issues, labor and material shortages, and current timelines and project paces.
States are slow to get the money to districts
The funds come with requirements, and following and documenting those requirements can be an involved process.
“The dollars have so many regulations and record-keeping–they can only be spent a certain way, so there has to be coordination with all of the oversight,” said Dr. Curtis Finch, superintendent of Arizona’s Deer Valley Unified School District.
“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.
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