Schools use Covid aid to fix buildings as kids struggle to catch up on lost learning

Public school districts still have tens of billions in federal funds to spend helping kids make up the learning they lost to Covid, but some experts worry that so far schools have spent too much of that money making long-delayed fixes to run-down physical facilities.

The Edunomics Lab, a Georgetown University research center that tracks the spending nationwide, estimates that as of December, about a quarter of the $184 billion in pandemic aid designated for schools since 2020 and spent so far had gone toward facilities and construction.

President Joe Biden signed the bill approving the third and largest infusion of cash, the American Rescue Plan, in March 2021. That funding came with some strings attached. School districts had to reserve at least 20% of the money to address pandemic learning loss — such strategies as tutoring, summer enrichment programs or after-school learning. But the majority of the funds were left up to the districts’ discretion, leading to major expenditures on teacher salaries and facility renovations — like general building repairs, HVAC installations and costly athletic complexes. The dollars spent on buildings rather than learning loss concerned some experts, parents and officials.

School officials in tiny, rural Northumberland County, Virginia, used $1.5 million of the funding to finance a new classroom extension and athletic facility at the county’s lone public high school. Principal Travis Burns toured the construction site with NBC News correspondent Stephanie Gosk. Said Burns, “Many school districts are using funding to address some of those facility needs that weren’t addressed prior to the pandemic, and I think are long overdue and much needed in the communities.”

Northumberland High School Principal Travis Burns and correspondent Stephanie Gosk tour the school’s new multipurpose facility, which is still undergoing construction.  (NBC News)
Northumberland High School Principal Travis Burns and correspondent Stephanie Gosk tour the school’s new multipurpose facility, which is still undergoing construction. (NBC News)

Schools still have over $80 billion to spend from the American Rescue Plan, and in December, the Department of Education “strongly discouraged” schools from using the funds for new construction projects that do not help “respond to” Covid, specifically advising against constructing athletic facilities. In a memo, the department said that use of funds for construction ”may limit an [local education agency’s] ability to support other essential needs or initiatives. Extensive remodeling, renovation, and new construction are often time-consuming, which may not be workable under the shorter timelines.”

The funding expires in September 2024.

Learning loss post Covid has been steep. Test results released by the Education Department in September show that math and reading scores for fourth and eighth grade students have fallen to an almost 20-year low.

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, said that while some facility projects are necessary, especially in districts that have been “shortchanged historically,” getting learning back on track for students should be schools’ priority.

“Some of [these projects] won’t be finished until that kid’s graduated and gone — so this money, which was for these kids, won’t actually benefit them,” Roza said.

Some facility renovations are long overdue, forcing districts with steep learning loss and crumbling structure/maintenance needs to make difficult choices.

In Mississippi’s Gulfport School District, where 34% of families live in poverty and achievement gaps between Black and white students are among the worst in the state, almost three-quarters of the designated funds have been budgeted for facility repairs, according to its spending plan. These expenditures went toward building new classrooms, sanitation materials, expanding the cafeteria and improving the school’s air quality, Velma Johnson, the federal programs coordinator for district, said.

“[American Rescue Plan funding] gave us the opportunity to add space to school facilities so that our students are safe and able to social distance,” she said.

She noted that the remaining funds for the 6,300-student district went toward purchasing technology, remediation courses and summer school programming.

The Mississippi Department of Education defended districts’ decisions to spend American Rescue Plan funds on facilities.

In a statement to NBC News, the department said that districts were only required “to reserve 20% to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions” — the federally mandated minimum. “The remaining funds were used at the [districts’] discretion for a wide range of activities allowable under [the American Rescue Plan], which included improving indoor air quality and repairing and improving school facilities to reduce the risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards.”

‘A Band-Aid over a bullet wound’

Beyond school building repairs and upgrades, some districts have used the historic funding to improve their athletic facilities. Milwaukee Public Schools, for instance, has budgeted $27 million for athletic facility upgrades like new baseball fields, fieldhouses and sound systems.

But for some, these expenditures don’t seem justified.

“It’s a Band-Aid over a bullet wound,” said Angela Harris, a first grade teacher in Milwaukee who has criticized the schools’ American Rescue Plan spending on athletic facilities.

In particular, she’s unhappy with the district’s spending on boosting athletic facilities at Reagan High School.

“They want to spend money where it will look good but not have the biggest impact on the students.”

Milwaukee Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment.

In Burns’ school in eastern Virginia, the county’s new facility will include classrooms, a new gym and space for its ROTC program — using almost half of its American Rescue Plan funding on the project. Another $1.2 million went to new buses, roof repair and other projects. By comparison, the county has budgeted $700,000 from its total allocation of $3.4 million on learning loss — a little more than 20%.

“When we think about learning loss, we also have to think about the socio-emotional challenges that kids have certainly dealt with during the pandemic,” Burns said. “And this facility is all about school culture, school climate, and building connection, so I believe that will help address some of those challenges as well.”

While some districts are cashing in their pandemic education budget on facility repairs, others are trying to “split the difference,” Roza said, and make lasting investments in their students’ space and education.

The Atlanta Public Schools district, which is responsible for 55,000 students, has added 30 minutes to each elementary school day. In Delaware, one of the worst states for learning loss in math and reading, mom Sarah Luoma said there’s “no question” that her school district’s investments into reading tutors have drastically improved her son’s progress.

A wake-up call

Chase Luoma, a fourth grader in northern Delaware’s 10,000-student Colonial School District, was only a first grader when the pandemic hit, shortly after his parents learned he would need special education courses. He returned to in-person school as a second grader in February 2021, struggling in reading and handwriting.

Colonial School District split most of its $30 million American Rescue Plan investment between air quality improvements and educational programs, like Reading Assist: a one-on-one tutoring service that aids K-3 students in Delaware. In second and third grade, Chase attended Reading Assist tutoring every day.

“It [Reading Assist] is filling that gap and taking a lot of pressure off of the teachers to be able to provide that one-on-one intervention for them,” Luoma said. “It made a lot of difference.”

But Sarah recognizes that Chase is an exception in an otherwise struggling system — citing the district’s spending priorities, his status as a special education student and having the time and resources to advocate for her son as reasons for his academic growth.

Delaware mom Sarah Luoma and her son, Chase. (NBC News)
Delaware mom Sarah Luoma and her son, Chase. (NBC News)

“No one wants their kids to know that their child is reading on a zero grade level when they’re in first grade, or that they’re struggling,” she said. “But if you ask the questions and you’re open and receptive to the answer, you just have to put in the work.”

While some students, like Chase, have been able to use American Rescue Plan-funded initiatives to make academic strides, if these nationwide learning losses are not recovered, experts say American children risk dropping out of school and earning less later in life.

Roza has a wake-up call for parents: “The money is flowing. All those programs are being deployed. If your child is below grade level in math and reading and you’re not aware of the programs in place to get your kid caught up, then I would reach out to the teacher and ask.”

With 18 months remaining before the spending deadline, schools have limited time to use this historic investment to get kids back on track.

“The urgency is right now to make sure that in the next 18 to 20 months, the kids are accessing these programs and getting back up to speed,” Roza said. “The clock is ticking.”

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