(CNN) — Some schools are struggling to stay open for in-person learning due to the latest wave of coronavirus — but a lack of money isn’t the problem.
Much of the $190 billion Congress authorized for schools at the start of the pandemic has yet to be used. In a majority of states, less than 20% of federal money had been spent by the end of November, according to the latest data from the US Department of Education.
“The barriers to reopening aren’t about money,” said Chad Aldeman, director of policy 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 masks to every student and staff member, if they wanted to send devices to every student, they can do that,” Aldeman added.
Federal funds can be used for a wide range of pandemic-related needs, such as buying Covid-19 masks and tests, adding staff members or providing retention bonuses for teachers. But just because districts have money doesn’t mean they can quickly fill vacancies or acquire enough tests, especially if they didn’t anticipate the latest spike in cases caused by the highly transmissible variant. of the Omicron coronavirus.
“A lot of reopening decisions right now are driven by non-financial factors,” Aldeman said.
Schools have 3 years to spend the money
The Covid relief money, which came from three different pieces of legislation, is a huge federal investment equal to about six times the amount of the fiscal year 2021 base funding.
Congress has given schools more than three years to spend the latest and largest amount of money provided by the US bailout passed in March. Totaling $128 billion, it is unlikely to be spent all at once, especially if it is used for teacher salaries or capital improvements that are paid for over time.
The funds first went to state education agencies, which then reimburse local school districts once they’ve made a purchase or paid 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 to use the money. The department approved the state’s final plan, submitted by Florida, last week.
“There are some things that schools want to spend the money on immediately to meet urgent needs, but there is a balance to be found,” said Danny Carlson, associate executive director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of Primary School Principals.
“Omicron has shown why it is important to budget strategically in order to be 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 money. Experts say the data collected is often too vague to shed light on exactly how the money is spent or determine its impact on students. State portals are generally updated more frequently than the federal tracking system.
Spending money on staff, summer learning and after-school programs, HVAC systems, mental health programs and technology to facilitate remote learning are among top priorities, a review of plans shows. of state spending by FutureED, a nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University.
Schools are in chaos
Unpredictable school closings and reopenings are exhausting parents, who must scramble to find daycare and also worry about their children’s mental health and whether they are getting a good education.
Many schools have delayed their reopening to early 2022, opting to extend winter vacation due to the Omicron push. While the vast majority of schools were operating as normal, more than 5,000 schools did not offer in-person learning for at least one day in the first two weeks of January, according to data firm Burbio, which aggregates data based on school calendars and other sources.
Major districts like Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta resumed in-person learning this week, but others — like public schools in Cincinnati and Indianapolis — are going virtual again due to high rates of Covid-19 cases and teacher absences.
“In reality, some districts handled the last wave better than others. Leadership and planning have an impact,” Carlson said.
In Washington, DC, and Richmond, Virginia, for example, school districts have made free Covid-19 testing available before students return to school after winter break.
Biden sends more Covid-19 tests
Some federal lawmakers feel compelled to respond to the moment. Despite the availability of funds, there were talks on Capitol Hill about passing another economic relief package before the talks bogged down. late December, CNN reported.
President Joe Biden recently said schools need to stay open and they have the money to do so.
“You know, they have what they need thanks to the American bailout,” he said.
But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday that he expects the White House to ask Congress to provide more funding for tests, vaccines and “to ensure that schools have the necessary resources to ensure their safety”.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it plans to start distributing 5 million free rapid tests and 5 million free PCR tests to schools every month. Public health experts have repeatedly stressed the need to expand Covid-19 testing in schools, but it is unclear whether 10 million free tests a month will have a significant impact for the roughly 48 million enrolled K-12 students across the country.
A recent decision by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shorten the number of days in isolation for infected teachers and staff from 10 to five days could help alleviate the staffing problems some schools are experiencing.
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