After the coronavirus pandemic hit educational institutions across the country, Congress authorized billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief to help them continue operating or reopen through three projects recovery law between March 2020 and March 2021.
Wisconsin schools’ share of the Elementary-Secondary Education Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) is more than $2.3 billion, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). . The Wausau School District received nearly $6 million under ESSER I and ESSER II, while the DC Everest Area School District received $3.675 million, according to business services officials from both. districts.
According to DPI, the ESSER funds “provide emergency financial assistance to address the impact that COVID-19 has had and continues to have on elementary and secondary schools.” The ESSER guidance document details the permitted activities. And under ESSER III, schools must allocate at least 20% to address “learning loss among students, including low-income students, children with disabilities, English language learners, racial and ethnic minorities, homeless students and foster children and youth”. care, from the local educational agency.
Not all schools have adhered to the spirit of the guidelines. Publicly available data shows some schools have used pandemic aid to ‘build new synthetic turf fields for football, baseball and softball’ while others have used to upgrade their outdoor stadium and rebuild facilities athletics. But federal and state government officials recognize that schools have a lot of flexibility in how they use allocated funds.
So how are local schools faring on this front? Documents and information shared by officials from Wausau and DC Everest, as well as DPI, suggest that they used or requested the use of funds for the payment of teachers and substitutes and for classroom technology, which are both permitted by the ESSER guidelines. The broad categories school districts can spend the money on are: COVID-19 preparedness and response, long-term school closures, educational technology, outreach and service delivery to special populations, after-school and summer learning, mental health services and supports, and continued employment of staff.
DPI officials said they have allocated $158.5 million under ESSER I and more than $684 million under ESSER II to local education agencies across the state. Wausau is likely to get $10,536,274 and DC Everest $4,620,214.
Schools will have to spend the amount by September 2022, 2023 and 2024, respectively.
“We’ve budgeted everything we have,” Matthew Spets, assistant superintendent, business and personnel services, told Wausau Pilot & Review. “We spent about 80% on a variety of staffing needs like teachers, assistants, student services staff and learning advocates.”
The overall personnel cost, however, is over 90% since the district paid substitutes at market rates when teachers missed school due to COVID “in order to maintain in-person classes.”
Learning advocates are working with teachers and parents to address learning loss caused by the pandemic, Spets added. They focus on students who missed in-person classes due to the pandemic and had to resort to remote learning temporarily. This is different from their Virtual Learning Academy, which is virtual year-round.
The remaining 9% was spent a year buying supplies like sanitizers and PPE (personal protective equipment). One of the largest non-staff items was student transportation, at over $640,000. Other major expense items include general supplies for the operation of equipment other than fixed assets, by DPI. Both figures were approved in November last year.
In the case of Wausau, the district has budgeted for a variety of areas, in addition to staffing needs and salaries. Some of the larger items include handrails ($80,000 for 2020-21 and $188,700 for 2021-22), technology and past cleaners ($108,780 for 2020-21), cases and iPad keyboards ($308,712 for 2021-22), a smart panel and mobile displays ($250,000 each for 2021-22, 2022-23 and 2023-24), prior technology ($199,300 for 2020-21), professional learning time and collaboration for teachers and support staff ($221,803 for 2020-21 and $328,042 for 2021-22). All these figures are based on the document provided by WSD.
Robert Tess, director of finance and business services for the Wausau School District, said the district has adhered to ESSER guidelines on using funds for pandemic-related challenges. He also said they were still waiting to hear from the DPI on some of the proposed spending.
With state lawmakers telling districts to use ESSER funds even for operating costs, the district has faced challenges, Tess said, particularly in “convincing the DPI and the federal government” of shortfalls in operational expenses.
Tess said the district is working to change the “vindication statement” of some of the items from previous stimulus funds. “We did our work internally; now we have to convince the DPI.
Schools spend funds on approved items and then file a disbursement package.
Chris Bucher, communications manager at DPI, said each district or independent charter school submits its grant applications to the organization for review against specific federal regulations and requirements. The CIO seeks clarifications if needed and approves funding plans if they comply with federal regulations and requirements, Bucher told Wausau Pilot & Review.
After the claims are approved, the school district or independent charter submits claims for the actual dollar amounts spent on the approved budget items. Each separate ESSER allocation has a different deadline by which the funds must be spent.