The new federal Covid-19 relief law will inject billions of dollars into K-12 schools to expand in-person learning and help students get their education back on track, but districts still face uncertainties over when they will return to full-time traditional instruction.
Superintendents and budget officers in the nation’s more than 13,000 districts are now determining how to use the $122 billion in funding to pay for mitigation measures, make up for students’ lost school time, hire tutors and counselors, overhaul buildings and fill any budget gaps.
The district will start the 2021-22 academic year early and use federal dollars to pay educators to teach some students during additional intersession periods, he said, effectively adding more days of instruction for students.
Nationwide, the infusion of money will help districts reduce health risks, as well as help children catch up. While many officials and union leaders say the aid will ensure they can teach safely in coming years, experts caution it won’t necessarily push districts to reopen more quickly in coming months. Other factors include when school-age children will be able to get a Covid-19 vaccine, union negotiations and the threat of new virus variants.
“The carrot of ‘Here’s some money, will you please open earlier,’ isn’t effective,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “I don’t think it will be relevant in any districts’ reopening decisions at this point.”
The debate over in-person instruction has sparked heated disputes across the country, where local officials are charged with making these decisions. Some teachers unions have delayed reopening plans over health concerns, asking for vaccine priority and improved classroom conditions, with many reaching agreements with districts in recent months. Some parents remain hesitant about having their children return, while others have pushed for districts to reopen sooner or expand instruction to full-time.
“We keep hearing ‘we need more money and more time’ when schools have had plenty of both,” said Rory Cooper, a political strategist and parent in suburban Virginia, in testimony Thursday in front of the Senate Banking Committee.
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On Capitol Hill, Republicans called the school-aid package bloated and unfocused, as it was spread out over several years and didn’t mandate that schools reopen.
“Do Democrats expect schools to reopen two years from now? That is what they’re saying with this bill. They have no plan to get children back in the classroom full-time,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) earlier this month.
Democrats say spreading the finding over several years will better address the long-term impact on schools.
“It’s not just about reopening, it’s about making sure they’re open and they’re safe,” said
Sen. Patty Murray
(D., Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate health and education committee.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week cut in half the distance students should remain from one another in classrooms, to 3 feet from six, a step that could speed reopening. More school districts have offered in-person learning options in recent months, with about 77% of districts providing full-time or hybrid learning, vs. 10.7% operating fully remote this month, according to a study of 477 districts by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.
Larger urban school districts aren’t generally as likely to offer full-time in-person instruction, though many have provided more options since December or have made plans to do so later this spring.
State legislatures have generally avoided deep cuts to K-12 education during the pandemic, though some districts used past federal aid to fill holes. Many district leaders hope the $1.9 trillion aid bill’s separate bucket of $350 billion for states and cities will prevent future cuts, and the bill includes a maintenance of equity provisions that requires that if states cut education funding they don’t disproportionately harm schools that serve predominantly lower income students. Enrollment declines in many school districts have also created budgetary challenges, since state funding can be contingent on these figures.
This week, the Biden administration released $81 billion to states for K-12 schools. Most of the overall $122 billion will go directly to districts and will be filtered through the federal Title I formula, which ensures more funding goes toward high-poverty schools. At least 20% of the funds must address lost learning opportunities.
Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma plans new programs including one-on-one help for juniors and seniors to meet graduation requirements and free tutoring for the 2021-22 school year. The district, which expects to get $123 million, will also use some funds for filtering equipment to continue improving air quality in schools. Officials previously used money from the March 2020 Cares Act to preserve the district’s budget after state funding cuts.
“We need every dollar,” said Jorge Robles, chief finance and operating officer for the Tulsa school system, where students were able to return in-person last month.
At Goddard Public Schools in the Wichita, Kan., suburbs, Superintendent Justin Henry hopes to use this new round of funding to keep some of the temporary 55 teachers and school nurses the district added this year to decrease class sizes.
Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent
hopes to extend learning opportunities, increase transportation options for students, upgrade old buildings and add air conditioning to make summer school more accessible.
“This is one of the few times I actually can say I feel supported,” said Dr. Vitti, who is anticipating about $700 million in new federal aid. It’s “a substantial investment to move us out of this place of stagnation as we’ve been.”
At the same time, districts are cautious about creating programs that won’t be funded after 2024, when the aid runs out. Deploying the federal funds over the next few years can be tricky under pressure from staff, unions, parents and communities, who may hope for salary increases or other long-term investments after a difficult year, school leaders say.
Write to Jennifer Calfas at Jennifer.Calfas@wsj.com
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