Schools are getting record money under COVID stimulus. Will it help kids who need it most?

Employee bonuses. Extended learning time. New textbooks. Building upgrades. More teachers, social workers and tutors. 

School districts are poised to spend a windfall of federal money on those items and more as $81 billion from the latest relief package flows into their coffers this week. But how effectively the record education spending will help jumpstart learning, fully reopen schools and address students’ social and mental health needs remains a key question.

“One of the expressed purposes is to focus on students who were most impacted by the pandemic and on addressing their academic and social needs,” Ian Rosenblum, assistant secretary at the Department of Education, told USA TODAY.

Schools received $122 billion as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus passed in March — the largest one-time infusion of federal money for schools in American history.

Department of Education officials said 31 states met this week’s deadline to send school districts their shares of the initial $81 billion aimed at spurring a massive academic and social recovery.

The other 19 states have not done that yet. They’ve been given an extension because they either need approval from their legislatures or they’re still engaged in planning, department officials said. Those states are Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

By June 7, states must tell the Department of Education how they plan to spend all the money. The remaining $41 billion of the $122 billion will be released after that.

Stimulus package: States and cities receive first chunk of $350 billion in aid

Plans still vague on helping the most disadvantaged students

But some experts are unconvinced districts are tailoring their plans to heap intensive supports on students who have been the most disengaged over the course of the pandemic. 

Researchers at the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, which follows education finance issues, have reviewed school board documents and draft budgets. They’ve mostly seen plans for employee bonuses, building upgrades and new staff hires, said Marguerite Roza, director of the lab.

“It has come across, at least in this first wave, as very ‘one size fits all,'” Roza said last week in a webinar. “We’re not seeing much in the way of new delivery models or new content or new course offerings.”

Rosenblum said the Department of Education expects to see more tailored plans for struggling students in the documents from states due June 7.

Rachel Thomas, a department spokeswoman, encouraged states and districts to use their new funds to expand access to vaccines, such as by establishing vaccination sites at schools. Other examples of new spending under way include:

  • Bibb County Schools, in Georgia, is allocating about $2 million for United Way tutors to coach students struggling academically.
  • Miami-Dade Schools, in Florida, is putting $50 million of its relief funds and other federal grants toward hiring staff for summer programming so the district can serve 65,000 students. Typically only about 5,000 Miami-Dade students attend summer school. 
  • Dallas Independent School District, in Texas, will extend learning time to 6 p.m. at 60 of its lowest-performing schools.
  • Cleveland Metropolitan Schools, in Ohio, will spend $10 million of its relief funds on teachers, $3 million on new instructional materials and $2 million on new books.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

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