Report: Relief funds for Wisconsin schools are going to technology, health, safety and COVID-learning recovery
Wisconsin schools have received $ 2.4 billion in federal aid over the past two years, and so far this money has been spent heavily on educational technology, COVID-19 responses, and addressing the effects of closure. of schools, according to a new Wisconsin Policy report. Forum.
Schools have received three rounds of federal funding in the form of relief funds for primary and secondary education, or ESSER, which went to all school districts, and a round of relief funds for primary and secondary education. ‘Governor’s Emergency, or GEER, which went to less than half of the state’s districts. Most of the state’s ESS money was allocated based on student income, with more money going to schools with more low-income students. GEER funds were distributed using a formula based on economic disadvantage, access to technology, and test scores.
The author of the report, Sara Shaw, found that the three categories (technology, preparation and response to COVID-19 and response to school closures) have remained stable over the cost of relief. schools so far, but have shifted a bit from heavy technology in the first round to more geared towards closing in later rounds.
With the first round of funding, schools covered many emergency pandemic needs. They bought child-sized masks, hand sanitizer, and air filters; hotspots and laptops requested for students learning at home; and acquired curricula and related staff training for students at home.
“That seemed to make intuitive sense, that in that first wave of panic, reacting to COVID, it was about how we connect our kids, how we connect our staff, how we connect our district?” said Shaw. “Now the cost of tackling long-term school closures is rising and (officials in the state’s Department of Public Instruction) told me they expect this trend to continue in both the rest of ESER II and to BE III, as school districts. They are investing in how to adapt. “
Subsequent rounds have allowed districts to look at larger or long-term projects, such as upgrading their schools’ ventilation systems, mental health services and buying new curricula that could work better for students who may have missed key concepts during interruptions of COVID-19.
Money is also limited in time, and districts will have to spend the last round of funding in late 2024 and the previous rounds before that.
“They’re unique funds,” Shaw said. “Whenever a district is considering that the funds will be used to cover normal operating costs, this should come as a surprise, because that means you’re now incorporating a recurring cost into your budget for which you don’t have a recurring source of funds.” .
Differences between districts
The report found that schools in different areas have somehow spent their relief funds differently.
Expenditure on educational technology was higher in urban and suburban districts, while urban and rural districts allocated more funds to COVID-19 preparedness and response.
“(Rural districts) were generally returning to all face-to-face learning faster than our urban district, so they may have moved faster from educational technology to COVID preparation and response.” said Shaw. “It may also have meant that there were certain things that ESSER funds couldn’t touch: if you’re facing broadband challenges, it’s not a district-specific issue, it’s a regional issue.”
Shaw saw the same pattern in large districts compared to smaller districts and districts with more low-income students compared to districts with less: high technology spending in more populated or lower-income districts and high spending in preparation for and response to COVID in less populated or higher-income areas. uns.
Single funds do not work well for some of the highest costs in the districts
While staff costs (salaries, benefits, and overtime) are generally the largest expense for schools, school leaders have avoided using federal relief funds to pay teachers and support staff because they will be stuck to keep these positions funded on their own. budget after the federal dollars run out. Still, Shaw said schools have found other creative ways to invest in their staff without preparing for a tax cliff.
Some, he said, have used money to retrain existing staff for various functions within the school. Others have partnered with nonprofits and businesses to incorporate counseling services, tutors, or other people who can help students recover from the pandemic in a limited amount of time.
Schools, however, face other financial pressures. The most recent state budget did not increase the amount of money schools receive, although the same inflation costs that affect grocery budgets and gas prices are pushing up their daily costs.
“They have that federal generosity that comes with an expiration date and they have their normal operating costs, and if inflation only touched their COVID costs, it might be okay, they have the money right now to do that,” Shaw said. . “The problem is that inflation does not discriminate between these one-time costs and the recurring costs.”
In addition, inflation means higher cost-of-living adjustments for staff, which is one of those recurring costs for which districts do not want to use one-off funds.
“School districts, with a desire to retain staff, especially amid concerns about depletion and a tight labor market, are really struggling with how much they should incorporate in the next budgets for cost-of-living adjustments. staff, “Shaw said. “Many of the district leaders I’ve talked to feel really stuck between what they feel they need to do to retain staff, what they feel they need to do to meet the needs of students right now, and what they need to do to be fiscally responsible “.