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Students wait in line to enter a public school on the first day of classes in the Bronx borough of New York on Sept. 13, 2021.

Students wait in line to enter a public school on the first day of classes in the Bronx borough of New York on Sept. 13, 2021. (Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg)

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In March 2021, the Biden administration released the federal government’s largest pool of pandemic relief for public schools. The American Rescue Plan infused campuses with $122 billion to reopen buildings, address mental health needs and help students who had fallen behind academically.

The need was so urgent that two-thirds of the money — $81 billion — was released less than two weeks after the plan was signed into law and before the Education Department could approve each state’s spending plan.

But despite having access to the dollars, school systems throughout the country reported spending less than 15 percent of the federal funding, known as ESSER III, the most recent installment of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, during the 2021-2022 school year, according to a Washington Post analysis of data collected by Edunomics, an education finance group at Georgetown University.

The spending rates varied considerably between states, and even among school districts within a state. But the trend of a slow rollout was especially apparent in some of the school districts that have incurred the steepest learning losses in English and math, according to the data. About half of the 211 districts the Post examined, where Edunomics estimates students are the furthest behind, spent 5 percent or less of their ESSER III money last school year, the data shows.

Meanwhile, national test scores in elementary school math and reading have plunged to levels that haven’t been seen in decades, and education advocates worry that children continue to fall behind. “The excuse in education has always been, ‘We don’t have enough money,’” said Keri Rodrigues, president of education advocacy group the National Parents Union. “Now we have a historic amount of spending, like never before, and you’re not even spending the money.”

The money was not spent for a variety of reasons — including delayed access to funds, a nationwide educator shortage that has made it hard to fill new positions, and a desire to make the money last, according to interviews with school officials and education experts in six states. ESSER III expires in September 2024, well after two earlier rounds of relief funding dry up, and school leaders say they want to stretch it as long as possible.

But while the money sits — much of which is slated to go toward tutoring and other measures to catch students up academically — millions of children continue to struggle in core subjects, the consequences of which might not be known for years.

School district leaders, however, insist they are making progress — particularly this school year as they plan to dip deeper into the remaining money. The vast majority of funds have already been committed to “critical needs,” such as addressing student mental health and reversing learning loss, and will be spent over the next two years, according to the White House and outside analyses of thousands of school districts’ spending plans. Many expenses, such as staff salaries, can only be drawn down gradually, officials added.

And in many cases districts are still spending earlier waves of federal funding, a total of $67.5 billion released during the Trump administration that helped schools pivot to virtual learning and retrofit buildings to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The White House said the passage of the American Rescue Plan expedited spending of those earlier rounds, and overall monthly pandemic education spending increased eightfold between February 2021 and August 2022.

Districts also explain the slow rate of spending by pointing to staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions that have made it difficult to fulfill their plans, as well as bureaucratic hurdles and reporting lags.

The state education agency in Maryland, for example, reports that Baltimore has not spent any of its relief dollars. Kimberly Hoffman, executive director of data monitoring and compliance for the school district of more than 77,000 children, said 14 percent of the grant has now been spent.

“We didn’t even have approval from the state to start spending it until October 2021,” Hoffman said. “A lot of our planning on using that third pot of ESSER funds is really what’s going to happen this year in the ‘22-23 school year and next year, in 2023-24.”

Using factors including test scores, family poverty data and the number of weeks students spent in remote learning, Edunomics estimates that children in Baltimore have lost an average of 18 weeks of learning in math and 15 weeks in reading. Remedying that could total $177.8 million in tutoring costs — 40 percent of the city’s ESSER III allotment — researchers estimate.

Hoffman said roughly half of Baltimore’s $443 million award is slated to address learning loss, much of which will take the form of tutoring as the district expands programs that started before the pandemic. In the months after ESSER III was announced, officials created a spending plan that included $39 million to pay teachers to tutor over the summer and $57 million to hire outside help for summer learning programs. That spending started this year and will continue over the summers of 2023 and 2024.

Millions more will be poured into one-on-one instruction, online tutoring and after-school learning programs — including $9 million to bring in outside organizations to tutor students in 100 schools over two years, according to the district.

Baltimore’s budget for the federal funding also includes more opportunities for students who failed courses to regain credits, as well as money to hire bus drivers, purchase WiFi hotspots for families and address long-neglected infrastructure needs — from bathroom renovations to air-conditioning installations.

Schools have been given wide latitude in determining how to use the money, though at least 20 percent must be spent to address learning loss. Schools have reported purchasing new curriculums, furniture and school supplies. At least 31 of the 100 largest school districts in the country are paying teachers bonuses, according to Future-Ed, another Georgetown education research group.

Some districts have shied away from purchases that can’t be sustained once the money runs dry, such as new positions or salary increases, although dozens have reported doing so anyway. In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County school district said it would use $5.8 million to hire about 400 “guest teachers,” whose positions are set to expire at the same time as the funding.

But most districts are eager to reverse the academic damage cause by the pandemic. The influx of federal dollars presents an opportunity to give unprecedented support to “kids who weren’t getting the educational opportunities they needed before the pandemic,” including children from low-income families, English language learners and students with special education needs, said Segun Eubanks, a professor and director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Education Innovation and Improvement.

In the nation’s capital, Edunomics estimates that students in the public school system are 20 weeks behind in math and 12 weeks behind in reading, which could cost more than $116 million to reverse. The district has reported spending less than 3 percent of its nearly $195 million allotment, according to the District’s state superintendent of education. The city’s charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated by nonprofit organizations called local education agencies, were awarded about $152.8 million.

Chris Bergfalk, a veteran D.C. public school teacher, said last school year — when most children came back to the building — was the hardest of his 20-year career. He returned to his fifth-grade classroom a mile from the Capitol to children who were traumatized.

In school, children eat two to three meals a day. They can talk to social workers and get after-school care. But when buildings closed, those services disappeared in many cases, Bergfalk said. Now teachers are seeing the effects.

“I have students who are at the beginning reading level, which means they can’t read, and I have students who are in the 99th percentile,” he said. One of the higher-scoring students, he added, said their parent hired a tutor while schools were closed.

In many cases, a child’s academic standing can be traced to whether consistent internet access was available at home, said Eric Teutsch, a high school Spanish teacher in Youngstown, Ohio. Schools recorded attendance issues throughout the pandemic as children struggled to get online, and when they came back to the classroom “they were behind academically and socially,” Teutsch said. Edunomics estimates it will cost $12.6 million to catch kids up who are, on average, 20 weeks behind in math and 16 weeks behind in reading.

Pinpointing the exact amount of learning loss incurred through the pandemic is tricky, and districts have different ways of measuring progress. But it is widely understood that schools are contending with a crisis.

Tennessee’s state department of education is awarding extra state funding to districts and charter schools that spend half of their ESSER III award on academics and participate in a multiyear tutoring program. In D.C., officials are pouring $40 million into frequent, small-group tutoring, with plans to provide services to more than 8,000 children over the next two academic years. This type of tutoring, often called “high-impact,” is among the best methods to accelerate learning, research indicates.

Consistency and continuity are also needed for an effective tutoring regime. But spending federal dollars has been challenging in the absence of qualified people who can make the commitment, said Jonathan Travers, a partner at Education Resource Strategies. The Massachusetts-based nonprofit helps school districts determine how best to use their resources.

At first it was hard to find teachers who could take on the extra workload, Travers said. Schools started outsourcing to local organizations, community partners and nearby universities to fill the gap. But with nearly every school district in the country embarking on the same strategy, even those positions are hard to fill.

The case has been the same with other staff positions — from teachers to bus drivers to mental health professionals. Districts set out last year to hire counselors to help children cope with the emotional fallout of spending months at home, around sick relatives or in neighborhoods beset by surging violent crime. Morgan County Schools, a rural district of about 2,100 students in West Virginia, is contending not only with the pandemic but an opioid epidemic. Officials planned to hire a school psychologist, a behavior support specialist and a social worker.

So far, the social worker position has been filled, said Kristen Tuttle, the district’s superintendent. The behavior support role was changed to a special education coach to make the position easier to fill, but the district has not been able to find a qualified candidate to take on the psychologist job, she added. The school system has reported using about 10 percent of its $4.7 million ESSER III allotment.

But even with plans in place, some districts acknowledge they are behind on spending, said Travers, who is working with about 30 urban and suburban school systems. “In some cases, probably, the plan review and approval took longer than they assumed,” he said. “I think the majority of cases, though, were about challenges getting management capacity to get spending initiatives kicked off.”

Education experts also warn the data available about ESSER III use do not fully capture what is happening in schools. The figure that gets reported — whether it’s zero, 5 or 31 percent of funding spent — reflects only how much money a district has requested from the state. School districts are not sitting on those dollars, they say, but rather tapping into local funds and getting reimbursed later.

“That’s one of the reasons there’s a difference between the budget and the plan to utilize funds versus actually pulling the money down, receiving it in your bank account and using it to pay someone,” said Dean Zajic, assistant director of special education and title services for the Kansas State Department of Education.

In Yakima, Wash., officials say slow spending is intentional. The district has requested 20 percent of its $56.1 million ESSER III allotment, state data show.

Jenny Rodriguez, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said the district has focused on spending the first two rounds of relief before tapping into ESSER III. Students in Yakima schools lost an average of 22 weeks of math and 21 weeks of reading, Edunomics estimates, which would cost $47.8 million to reverse.

“Rather than a huge fire hose of funding in a single year, or even two years,” Rodriguez said, “we’ve been intentional to think about how do we stretch this funding to have supports for students as long as possible?”

In Youngstown, however, the public school district is more than three-quarters of the way through its $50 million ESSER III grant.

Justin Jennings, the system’s superintendent, said it’s because officials started requesting money early. “When other people were buying hotspots and laptops, we already had them on the way,” he said.

The district of more than 4,000 students also requested funding for big-ticket expenses, from air conditioning units to roofing repairs. Officials bought 48 new school buses, Jennings said, adding that some of the older vehicles “should have been out of service years ago.”

But one thing that has stumped Jennings, and school leaders throughout the country, is how to sustain some of these purchases. For example, many districts in 2020 became one-to-one device districts overnight, meaning that, for the first time, every student had a laptop. But those devices last, at most, five years, Jennings said — at which point officials will have to figure out how to replace hundreds of devices.

In Baltimore, Zabrina Harris, a middle school special educator, said she is proud of how her district has addressed education deficits. Although her students are behind, they are still making progress, she said.

But she also understands the reality. Children in the city — for myriad reasons, from poverty to exposure to violence — have long trailed their peers across the state. In districts like that, it may take more than one-time federal relief to reverse years of underinvestment.

“They may never meet certain standards,” Harris said. “But will they be readers and writers and thinkers? Yes, they will. I have faith in that.”

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