Federal COVID relief funding will dry up soon. Are districts ready?


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For the past couple of years, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has been able to tap its share of federal COVID relief aid to fund after-school enrichment programs that help students recover from learning lost during the pandemic.

But those funds will soon run out, and Detroit and other districts face some tough decisions about which programs and employees they can afford to keep once federal support is gone. 

Detroit parent Aliya Moore said she is concerned that her daughter’s newly funded after-school debate team will be “snatched,” along with funding for new positions such as parent outreach coordinators.

“That’s my biggest fear,” said Moore, who is a frequent critic of the district. “Just going into (next) school year, and a lot of these people are not there.”

For districts, there’s an added challenge: Looming deadlines attached to the federal aid put them under time pressure to map out their spending and use up the remaining funds quickly and effectively, while also figuring out how they’ll manage without it. 

What they’re eager to prevent is a so-called fiscal cliff, where a steep drop in funding forces sudden and severe budget cuts that could ripple throughout the school system.

Superintendents in Michigan are generally optimistic that their districts can avoid that scenario, especially given the prospect of increased state funding. But experts say it will take work.

“Districts need to plan now, so students don’t face chaos at the start of the 2024 school year with classrooms and teachers shuffled, programs abruptly dropped, demoralized staff, and leaders focusing on nothing but budget woes,” wrote Marguerite Roza, a professor at Georgetown University who studies school finance, in a recent article.

What is federal COVID aid?

Michigan hasn’t seen anything like this: more than $6 billion in federal funds aimed at helping students recover from the pandemic, by far the largest one-time federal investment in schools in state history. Most of it was distributed based on poverty levels in each district’s community. The Detroit district alone received $1.27 billion.

Congress gave districts plenty of leeway on how they could spend the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money, or ESSER funds. So far, they have used it for a wide array of projects, including summer school expansions, staff bonuses, air filtration improvements, building renovations, tutoring, and mental health programs.

But they’re on a tight schedule to spend it. The federal government wants the funds deployed quickly to accelerate the recovery from the pandemic.  So districts have only until 2024 to get state approval for all their spending plans. Much of the spending itself must be complete by 2025, though districts may apply for extensions through 2026.

Districts aim to reduce spending without affecting the classroom

Having such a massive spending initiative roll out — and wrap up — so quickly was never going to be easy for Michigan districts. The state’s highest-poverty districts, which received by far the most funding per student, are taking the longest to spend the funds amid supply chain disruptions and a tight labor market.

Even districts that budgeted carefully and avoided long-term spending commitments that couldn’t be sustained without federal support will see disruptions from the loss of short-term programming that has been critical to the COVID recovery effort.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District, for instance, has notified as many as 100 staff members, including central office staff, master teachers, deans of culture, and attendance agents, that their positions paid for in part using federal COVID aid may be cut or consolidated by the end of the school year. 

Neighboring Ecorse Public Schools will end a tutoring program designed to help students manage the effects of the pandemic.

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