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Should schools spend federal cash fixing crumbling buildings or helping kids make up for the learning lost to Covid?

Public school districts still have tens of billions in federal funding to help kids make up for lost education due to COVID, but some experts worry that schools have spent too much of that money so far. which is spending on long-delayed reforms in running physical facilities. ,

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

President Joe Biden signed a bill in March 2021 approving the US rescue plan, the third and largest infusion of cash. This money came with some conditions. School districts were to reserve at least 20% of funds to address pandemic learning losses — such as tuition, summer enrichment programs or after-school education. But most of the funding was left to the discretion of the districts, leaving major expenditures on teacher salaries and facility renovations — such as general building repairs, HVAC installations and expensive athletic complexes. The dollars spent on buildings instead of the loss of learning worried some experts, parents and officials.

For more on this story, watch NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt tonight at 6:30PM ET/5:30PM CT or check your local listings.

School officials in small, rural Northumberland County, Virginia used $1.5 million to finance a new classroom expansion and athletic facility at the county’s only public high school. Principal Travis Burns toured the construction site with NBC News correspondent Stephanie Gosk. Burns said, “Many school districts are using the funds to address some of the facilities needs that were not addressed prior to the pandemic, and that I think are long overdue and much needed in communities. “

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

Schools still have more than $80 billion to spend from the US rescue plan, and in December, the Department of Education “strongly discouraged” schools from using the money for new construction projects that could “prevent Covid”. answer”, specifically advising against an athletic build. facilities. In a memo, the department said the use of funds for construction “could limit [local education agency’s] Ability to support other urgent needs or initiatives. Extensive remodeling, renovation and new construction is often time consuming, which may not be practical under tighter deadlines.

The funding ends in September 2024.

The loss of learning post covid has been steep. Test results released by the Department of Education in September show that math and reading scores for fourth and eighth grade students have fallen to nearly 20-year lows.

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

“Some [these projects] It’s not going to be complete until that child graduates and leaves – so this money, which was meant for these kids, won’t actually benefit them,” Rosa said.

Renovation of some facilities is long pending, forcing districts with acute learning loss and crumbling infrastructure/maintenance to make difficult choices.

Gulfport School District in Mississippi, where 34% of families live in poverty and the achievement gap between black and white students is the worst in the state, according to its spending plan, nearly three-quarters of the money designated is budgeted for facility repairs. Is placed. , Velma Johnson, the district’s federal program coordinator, said these expenses went to building new classrooms, sanitation supplies, expanding the cafeteria and improving the school’s air quality.

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

She noted that the rest of the money went toward purchasing technology, remedial curriculum and summer school programming for the 6,300-student district.

The Mississippi Department of Education defended the districts’ decisions to spend US rescue plan funds on the facilities.

In a statement to NBC News, the department said 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 [districts’] discretion for a wide range of allowable activities under [the American Rescue Plan]That included improving indoor air quality and repairing and improving school facilities to reduce the risk of virus transmission and environmental health hazards.

‘Band-Aid on the bullet wound’

In addition to school building repairs and upgrades, some districts have used historic funds to improve their athletic facilities. For example, Milwaukee Public Schools budgeted $27 million for athletic facility upgrades such as a new baseball field, fieldhouse, and sound system.

But some people do not find these expenses justified.

“It’s a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” said Angela Harris, a first-grade teacher in Milwaukee, who has criticized the US rescue plan for schools spending on athletic facilities.

Specifically, he is unhappy with the district’s spending to boost athletic facilities at Reagan High School.

“They want to spend the 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.

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 American Rescue Plan funds on the project. Another $1.2 million was spent on new buses, roof repairs and other projects. By comparison, the county has budgeted $700,000 out of its total allocation of $3.4 million on learning loss – a little over 20%.

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

While some districts are cashing in their pandemic education budgets on facility repairs, others are trying to “split the difference,” Rosa said, and make sustainable investments in the location and education of their students.

The Atlanta Public School District, which accounts for 55,000 students, has added 30 minutes to each elementary school day. In Delaware, one of the worst states for learning losses in math and reading, mom Sarah Luoma said there is “no question” that her school district’s investment in reading tutors has significantly improved her son’s progress .

a wake up call

Chase Luoma was a fourth grader in northern Delaware’s 10,000-student Colonial School District 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 with reading and writing.

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

“This [Reading Assist] That, Luoma said, is filling that gap and removing a lot of pressure for teachers to be able to provide one-on-one interventions. “It made a difference.”

But Sara 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 time spent advocating for his son as reasons for his academic growth. and having resources.

Delaware mom Sarah Luoma and her son, Chase.
Delaware mom Sarah Luoma and her son, Chase.nbc news

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

While some students, like Chase, have been able to use U.S. rescue plan-funded initiatives to make academic progress, if these nationwide learning losses are not compensated, experts say American children could be more likely to drop out of school and fall out of school. There is a risk of earning less later in life.

Rosa is 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 are not aware of programs to catch your child, I would reach out to the teacher and ask.

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

“There is an urgent need to ensure that children are accessing these programs and gaining momentum over the next 18 to 20 months,” Rosa said. “The clock is ticking.”



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