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.