As schools battle Omicron, billions of federal relief dollars remain unspent

As schools battle Omicron, billions of federal relief dollars remain unspent

“The barriers to reopening are not tied to money,” said Chad Aldeman, policy director at Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University.

“Few districts can say money is an issue right now for reopening decisions. If they wanted to give every student and staff member masks, if they wanted to send devices to each student — they can do it,” Aldeman added.

The federal funds can be used for a broad range of pandemic-related needs, like buying masks and Covid-19 tests, adding staff members or offering retention bonuses to teachers. But just because districts have the money doesn’t mean they can quickly fill open positions or acquire enough tests, especially if they didn’t anticipate the latest case surge caused by the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant.

“A lot of reopening decisions right now are driven by nonfinancial factors,” Aldeman said.

Schools have 3 years to spend the money

Congress gave schools more than three years to spend the latest and biggest round of money delivered by the American Rescue Plan that was passed in March. Totaling $128 billion, it’s unlikely to be spent all at once, especially if it’s used for teachers’ salaries or capital improvements that are paid for over time.

The funds first flowed to state education agencies, which then reimburse local school districts once they make a purchase or pay salaries, for example. The Department of Education released two-thirds of the money to states in March and sent the remaining funds once it approved a state’s plan for using the money. The department approved the final state plan, submitted by Florida, last week.

“There are some things that schools want to spend the money on immediately to address urgent needs, but there’s a balance to strike,” said Danny Carlson, associate executive director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

“Omicron has shown why it’s important to budget strategically so you’re well positioned to respond to the pandemic as it continues to evolve,” he added.

The decentralized nature of the US school system makes it difficult to track how and when districts are spending the money. Experts say the data collected is often too vague to shine light on how exactly the money is being spent or determine what impact it’s having on students. State portals are generally updated more frequently than the federal tracking system.

Spending money on staffing, summer learning and after-school programs, HVAC systems, mental health programs and technology to aid remote learning are some of the top priorities, according to a review of state spending plans by FutureED, a nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University.

Schools are in chaos

“In reality, some districts have been able to handle the latest surge better than others. Leadership and planning are having an impact,” Carlson said.

Biden is sending more Covid-19 tests

“You know, they have what they need because of the American Rescue Plan,” he said.

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday that he expects the White House will request Congress to provide more funding for testing, vaccines and “to make sure schools have the resources to keep themselves safe.”

CNN’s Annie Grayer contributed to this report.

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