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Wisconsin schools taking time to strategize use of COVID-19 relief funds

Wisconsin received about $2.4 billion in COVID-19 relief money for its schools. (Photo credit: WLUK)
Wisconsin received about $2.4 billion in COVID-19 relief money for its schools. (Photo credit: WLUK)
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GREEN BAY (WLUK) -- Most of the money given to Wisconsin schools to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to be spent. However, school officials say there are good reasons the money hasn’t been spent yet.

Wisconsin schools have received about $2.4 billion in the one-time federal money. Nearly $2 billion of that has yet to be claimed for reimbursement, according to Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan independent research organization that looked at how schools are spending their COVID relief funds.

Sara Shaw is a senior researcher for the group.

“I will admit when I first started looking at these data, I was worried about how it looked like there was still much to spend and are we going to be able to spend it all in time,” said Sarah Shaw, a senior researcher for Wisconsin Policy Forum. “District leaders and other observers we spoke with really were not concerned about that.”

“If we could spend it today, we would spend it today,” said Vicki Bayer, interim superintendent of the Green Bay Area Public School District. “We want to be fiscally responsible.”

The Green Bay Area Public School District received about $72.4 million in COVID-19 relief funds. It has claimed about 22 percent of that amount for reimbursement.

“There are many things we couldn’t accomplish if not for these funds,” said Bayer. “Focusing on transitioning to virtual learning, that was a huge lift in these monies provided us the opportunity not only for the equipment, the technology, but also professional development. Classroom teachers transitioning from face to face in the classroom to online teaching is very different.”

Wisconsin Policy Forum found schools across the state spent 41.9 percent of the first round of COVID relief funds, also known as ESSER I, on educational technology. 32.3 percent was spent on preparedness and response to COVID-19, and 18.8 percent went toward addressing long-term school closure.

Those categories are also tops for the second round of funding, known as ESSER II. However, addressing long term closure is first at 36.4 percent of the spending, followed by preparedness and response at 29.4 percent, and education technology at 20.4 percent.

“There are so many possible things that a district may have spent money on,” said Shaw when asked what criteria was given to the districts for spending the money. “Congress gave wide latitude in what those dollars, the allowable uses of those dollars. These categories help us generally see where the dollars are going, but there could be a lot of variation within each category.”

Green Bay also geared most of its first round of COVID funds toward educational technology and addressing long term school closures. However, it’s third largest chunk, at nearly 20 percent, went toward after school and summer learning.

Of the second round of money it has spent, Green Bay put nearly half (46.6 percent) towards after school and summer learning.

“We heard from our parents and we heard from our teachers the concern that there was learning loss between the two school years and how can we best address that,” said Bayer. “Summer school is one of the easiest ways to do that.”

Bayer says last summer the district had about 7,000 of its more than 19,000 students enrolled in summer school.

“It was one of the most, if not the most robust summer school programs in the state of Wisconsin,” said Bayer. “We were really proud of it.”

A potential downside of putting the one-time COVID funds toward summer school staffing is the program might not be sustainable.

Green Bay is projecting a major funding gap after the federal deadline passes for obligating the third and final round of COVID funds in September 2024.

“I don’t want to say it’s the worst thing you could do to a school district, because any of the funds are very helpful, but anytime there is a cliff where the funds run out and you’ve been doing something where you’re seeing results, it becomes very, very difficult,” said Bayer.

“There is this tension of what to do for short term, what to do for long term and how do we manage, we being district leaders, that we have these one-time federal funds that is quite a large sum of money, but if we invest in anything that is going to be recurring, we don’t have a recurring source of revenue for that,” said Shaw.

Shaw says the need to strategize seems to be the biggest concern for district leaders when deciding how to spend the COVID funds. She says it helps explain the hesitancy in spending the money.

“If you or I won the lottery, we might not know right away how we would want to spend all these dollars and district leaders find themselves a little bit of that very fortunate, but also daunting position of how do we spend these dollars,” said Shaw.

Unlike most other entities that received COVID relief money, the schools receive the money through reimbursement claims. There is a 90 day grace period for making those claims after the deadline passes in September 2024.

Researchers also point out the amount claimed doesn’t paint the whole picture with the COVID funds. They say school districts have earmarked money for certain uses, but haven’t spent it yet.

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