How Districts With Different Poverty Levels Are Spending COVID Relief Funds

Recently in The 74, Phyllis Jordan and Bella Dimarco reviewed a new FutureEd analysis of plans for spending ESSER III emergency relief funds, including more than 2,600 school districts serving 53 percent of the nation’s public school students. The analysis suggests that the higher the poverty rate in a district’s student population, the more likely its administrators are to devote the federal aid toward renovating aging ventilation systems and other repairs to schools. Likewise, the higher the poverty rate, the more likely a district is to use relief aid for new instructional materials, ranging from writing supplies to culturally relevant curricula. Excerpts of the piece appear below:

While all districts have made hiring and paying academic staff a top spending priority — it’s the No. 1 choice in the more affluent districts and No. 2 among the highest-poverty quartile — other choices vary widely, depending on poverty levels.

Consider plans for improving heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, an allowable use for the federal aid since COVID-19 is an airborne disease. About a third of the most affluent districts — the top 10 percent in the sample — plan to spend ESSER III money on upgrades, making it the fifth-highest priority for that group. For the 10 percent of districts with the most children in poverty, HVAC is the No. 1 priority, with about two-thirds of the districts investing in improvements.

Beyond HVAC, low-income school districts are also more likely to plan investments in what Burbio classifies as repairs that “reduce the risk of illness,” such as lead water testing systems, roof replacements to deal with moisture intrusion and humidity issues, and capital improvements. This spending category doesn’t appear among the top 10 priorities for the most affluent half of schools in the sample. But nearly half of the districts in the poorest quartile and more than half those in the poorest 10 percent plan to spend in this category.

Research shows that learning suffers when students are too hot or too cold in the classroom. Mold and mildew contribute to absenteeism, especially for students with asthma — the No. 1 cause of student absences before the pandemic. Exposure to lead, through contaminated water or peeling paint, can contribute to learning delays and behavioral problems. Fixing these problems can ultimately create safer, healthier learning environments.

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