How You Can Avoid Missing Out on COVID Relief Money (Opinion)

Schools are being offered a once-in-a-lifetime windfall of federal money to recover from the pandemic, but weak management and labor shortages mean billions may go unclaimed and unspent.

In 2020 and 2021, Congress passed a series of stimulus bills that provide $190 billion—the equivalent of $3,500 per public school student—to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

The money comes with a remarkable lack of strings on how it can be spent, but there’s one big catch: Schools must use it or lose it by September 2024.

It’s a race against the clock, and the clock may be winning. If current trends continue, I estimate about 1 of every 10 dollars, or as much as $20 billion, could return unused to federal coffers. That would be bad news for schools. It also would require some difficult explanations from district leaders and school board members to voters on why they passed up such a valuable funding opportunity.

There is no question that students need the help that money can buy. After months of remote learning, teacher burnout, and technological woes, school districts are reporting widening educational disparities. On top of those COVID-related issues, schools face many other long-term funding problems, which have led to perennial shortages of classroom supplies, substandard ventilation systems, and basic maintenance problems such as leaky roofs.

Every dollar in that ESSER fund can be used to boost academic achievement. Unfortunately, some money isn’t.

In Wisconsin, one school district spent $1.6 million on synthetic turf fields for football, baseball, and softball. A Kentucky school board allocated $1 million to resurface two outdoor running tracks. Another district bought each student two computer tablets—one for school and one for home.

These kinds of spending abuses threaten to ruin goodwill in Congress—and among school communities—for the well-intentioned ESSER program.

In some ways, it’s a big ask for schools to manage so much money so quickly. School boards often are elected volunteer parents who are not experts on the intricacies of federal funding requirements.

At the same time, school districts face the same labor shortages that hamstring the rest of the economy. It’s not easy to find workers to fix HVAC systems or plumbing leaks or peeling paint in any building in America today, much less in crowded schools.

And with competitive-bidding processes that require public advertising and a formal appeals process, government construction contracts will never be fast turnarounds.

Still, ESSER money is a once-in-a-generation chance to fix school shortcomings, and it would be a heartbreak to waste it. Instead of football fields, schools should be looking to fund these kinds of improvements with ESSER money:

1. Targeted tutoring. Extra help for students outside regular classes has been shown to have a significant impact on academic outcomes. This is one of the best uses of ESSER funds and a good way to address learning gaps that have grown during the pandemic.

2. Pre-K program funding. Expanding pre-K programs to reach younger children and lower-income families is another high-value use of funds that pays long-term dividends in both academic performance and equity. One key here is to identify a sustainable funding source for the years after ESSER funding ends.

3. Teacher recruitment and retention. Bonuses and raises will help schools hold on to teachers who have faced unprecedented stress during the pandemic. One-time financial incentives, timed to persuade teachers to stay for another school year, can be a smart use of funds. But these investments need to be made with eyes wide open about their impact on districts’ long-term cost structure after the temporary funding ends in 2024.

4. Baseline academic tests. Many schools shut down testing over the pandemic, meaning they have no accurate gauge of their students’ current academic level. How can you target resources if you don’t know who or what needs help? Devoting some emergency funds to running a districtwide baseline assessment is a good idea.

5. Capital investments. Investing in facility repairs and improvements can be valuable but represents a difficult trade-off against academic interventions. The solution is to first invest in a facilities-conditions assessment that can enable leaders to prioritize projects.

The federal funding clock is ticking. While not every school and district has the same funding needs, these examples offer an idea of ​​the kinds of investment that can yield better, more sustainable results. Students and school staff have been through so much during this pandemic. We owe it to them to make the best use of ESSER money.

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