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Should schools spend federal money fixing crumbling buildings or helping kids catch up on learning lost to Covid?

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Public school districts still have tens of billions in federal funds to spend to help kids catch up on the learning they’ve lost to Covid, but some experts worry schools have spent too much so far. this money to repair long-dilapidated physical facilities. .

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

President Joe Biden signed the bill approving the third and largest cash injection, the US bailout, in March 2021. That funding came with strings attached. School districts were required to set aside at least 20% of the money to address pandemic learning loss — such as strategies like tutoring, summer enrichment programs, or after-school learning. But the majority of funds have been left to the discretion of districts, resulting in significant expenditures on teacher salaries and facility renovations — such as general building repairs, HVAC facilities and expensive sports complexes. Dollars spent on buildings rather than learning loss have worried some experts, parents and officials.

For more on this story, tune in to NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. CT or check your local listings.

School officials in the small, rural Northumberland County, Va., used $1.5 million of the funding to fund a new classroom extension and sports facility at the county’s only public high school. Director Travis Burns toured the construction site with NBC News correspondent Stephanie Gosk. Says Burns, “A lot of school districts are using funds to meet some of these facility needs that weren’t met before the pandemic, and I think they’re long overdue and communities need them badly. »

Northumberland High School Principal Travis Burns and correspondent Stephanie Gosk tour the school's new multipurpose facility, which is still under construction.
Northumberland High School Principal Travis Burns and correspondent Stephanie Gosk tour the school’s new multipurpose facility, which is still under construction. BNC News

Schools still have more than $80 billion to spend under the U.S. bailout, and in December the Department of Education ‘strongly discouraged’ schools from using the funds for new construction projects that don’t help “respond” to Covid, specifically advising against building athletics facilities. In a memo, the ministry said the use of funds for construction “may limit a [local education agency’s] ability to respond to other essential needs or initiatives. Large-scale renovations, renovations and new construction often take time, which may not be feasible in shorter time frames. »

Funding expires in September 2024.

The learning loss after Covid was steep. Test results released by the Department for Education in September show that fourth and eighth grade students’ math and reading scores have fallen to their lowest level in nearly 20 years.

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

“A part of [these projects] won’t be finished until that kid graduates and is gone – so that money, which was meant for those kids, won’t actually benefit them,” Roza said.

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

In the Gulfport School District in Mississippi, where 34% of families live in poverty and where achievement gaps between black and white students are among the worst in the state, nearly three-quarters of designated funds were budgeted for the repair of facilities, according to its spending plan. . The spending went toward building new classrooms, sanitary equipment, expanding the cafeteria and improving the school’s air quality, said Velma Johnson, federal programs coordinator for the district.

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

She noted that the remaining funds for the district of 6,300 students were earmarked for the purchase of technology, remedial classes and summer school programs.

The Mississippi Department of Education has defended district decisions to spend U.S. bailout funds on facilities.

In a statement to NBC News, the department said districts were only required to “set aside only 20% to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions” — the mandated minimum. by the federal government. “The remaining funds were used at the [districts’] discretion for a wide range of activities permitted 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 on a Bullet Wound”

Beyond repairs and upgrades to school buildings, some districts have used historic funding to improve their athletic facilities. Milwaukee Public Schools, for example, has budgeted $27 million for sports facility upgrades like new baseball diamonds, clubhouses and sound systems.

But for some, these expenses do not seem justified.

“It’s a band-aid over a gunshot wound,” said Angela Harris, a first-grade teacher in Milwaukee, who criticized the US schools bailout spending on sports facilities.

In particular, she is unhappy with the district’s spending to strengthen athletic facilities at Reagan High School.

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

Milwaukee Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment.

At the Burns school in eastern Virginia, the county’s new facility will include classrooms, a new gym and space for its ROTC program – using nearly half of its bailout funding American for the project. Another $1.2 million went to new buses, roof repairs and other projects. By comparison, the county budgeted $700,000 of its total $3.4 million allocation for learning loss, or just over 20%.

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

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

The Atlanta Public Schools District, which serves 55,000 students, added 30 minutes to each elementary school day. In Delaware, one of the worst states for math and reading learning loss, mom Sarah Luoma said there’s “no doubt” her school district’s investments in reading tutors had greatly improved his son’s progress.

A wake up call

Chase Luoma, a fourth-grader in the 10,000-student Colonial School District in Northern Delaware, was just a freshman when the pandemic hit, shortly after his parents learned he would need special education classes. He returned to school in person as a second-grader in February 2021, struggling with reading and writing.

Colonial School District has split most of its $30 million investment in the U.S. bailout between improving air quality and educational programs, like Reading Assist: a one-on-one tutoring service that helps Kindergarten through 3rd grade students in Delaware. In second and third grade, Chase attended Reading Assist tutoring every day.

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

But Sarah acknowledges 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 his son as reasons for his academic growth.

Sarah Luoma, mom from Delaware, and her son, Chase.
Sarah Luoma, mom from Delaware, and her son, Chase.BNC News

“Nobody wants their kids to know that their child is reading at zero level when they’re in first grade, or struggling,” she said. “But if you ask the questions and you’re open and receptive to the answer, you just have to get to work.”

While some students, like Chase, have been able to use US bailout-funded initiatives to make academic progress, if these nationwide learning losses are not recouped, experts say American children are at risk. drop out of school and earn less later in life.

Roza issues a cry of alarm to the parents: “The money is flowing. All of these programs are being rolled out. If your child is below grade level in math and reading and you are unaware of the programs in place to catch up with your child, then I would contact the teacher and ask.

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

“The urgency right now is to make sure that in the next 18 to 20 months, children are accessing these programs and getting back on track,” Roza said. “The clock is turning.”


Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.