4 Tips for Spending Schools’ COVID Funds Wisely

States, districts, and schools are still working out how to spend the nearly $200 billion in COVID-19 relief funds from three rounds of federal emergency aid. They’ve got until 2024 to do so. So what priorities should they be using to get the best results from that aid?

Bryan VanGronigen, an assistant professor of education at the University of Delaware, drew from his research on states’ and districts’s experience with billions of dollars in the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants program to offer guidance on how they can steer COVID aid toward appropriate interventions for staff and students.

Conduct a needs assessment in setting spending priorities

Get to the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve. In his research on the school improvement program, VanGronigen found the needs assessment part of the process often “perfunctory,” with districts and states consulting few data sources or using very little original data.

Getting that wrong has the potential to derail the entire effort: It could mean that schools and districts misidentify the problem and the cause or pick the wrong intervention or vendor to address it.

“If you don’t get that part of it right, in some cases, you might be spending money on interventions that have no alignment or empirical root in what the actual prescribed needs are of that particular school,” he said.

Pick the right course of action

Educators have the tendency to want to fix things—something Anthony Bryk, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called “solutionitis.”

VanGronigen urges a thorough review process before settling on a course of action.

If a school’s English/language arts score fell during the pandemic, for example, it might be tempting for school leaders to look at that data point and think the school needs a new curriculum.

“’We need to raise ELA, so let’s just go find something that’s going to raise ELA,’” he said, “as opposed to something like, ‘Why are ELA scores low in the first place? What do our teacher turnover numbers look like?’”

It’s important for school leaders to take a step back.

“How much do you know about the problem in the first place?” he asked. “Have you done some recent trend analyzes or anything like that?”

Spend time on vendor selection

In addition to accurately diagnosing the problem, it’s also crucial to find the right vendor.

That can be a tough one for school leaders, who don’t generally go deep into procurement in their leadership preparation programs. Tiers of evidence? Research-based versus research-backed? Terms like that can be confusing to a school leader.

VanGronigen’s advice: Don’t be intimidated by the deadline to spend the cash. Take your time and do your homework.

“I think when there’s this kind of arbitrary deadline, if you will, for when these funds need to be spent, that incentivizes some kinds of behaviors that are less than ideal,” he said.

School leaders may think, “we don’t want to lose the money, for instance, and, so, we might do a more local search, we might ask around to other school district officials, or people who are in our state and see what they bought, and so we might choose to replicate those decisions just because that was an easier search,” he said.

Instead, he suggests that school and district leaders start with organizations and agencies that have done some of the legwork. That could include state education agencies, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and professional organizations, such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Many of those organizations already have vendor lists, some of which have already been vetted and approved.

But even then, school leaders have to be careful. Some of these lists are simply aggregates or repositories and haven’t been vetted, meaning that school leaders still have to do their due diligence to ensure the vendor can deliver.

Define success and how it will be measured

Districts and schools should not rely on a single measure of success, such as student test scores that are available once a year.

Shorter-cycle measures, such as 90-day test scores to see movement in English/language arts test scores, for example, can help school principals assess the progress of interventions and pivot as necessary, he said.

If a district’s intervention is to improve the quality of its professional learning communities (or PLCs)—to ultimately improve student performance—then it can also collect survey data from teachers on the usefulness of the PLCs, as well as observation data from school leaders along the way, instead of waiting for test scores.

“When leaders have a little bit of ‘free time’ to be able to dig into data, it’s likely over the summer, and if they don’t have access to these data, that doesn’t inform their needs assessments or their root cause analyzes to the degree that they could,” VanGronigen said. “As a result, they might continue to make less-than-ideal decisions or less-than-informed decisions because of the way that current timelines in education and in the system are structured.”

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