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How Can Schools Use $129 Billion in Covid Relief Funds?

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The $1.9 trillion relief plan has a lot of money going to education. About $129 billion goes directly to K-12 education. Before a school reopening summit meeting on Wednesday, President Biden announced the release of $81 billion of the funds. Separately, colleges and universities will get about $40 billion.

On top of school-specific funding, about $7 billion goes to the federal E-Rate program, which helps students get online. And the stimulus expanded funding to families with children, a policy overhaul that will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class, if only temporarily.

Below, we compiled a breakdown of key items. And here’s the bill, if you want to read it for yourself.

Advancing one of President Biden’s main policy agendas, the relief package focuses on getting students back into classrooms and making up for learning loss. Districts have until late 2024 to spend the money, which they should receive within a few months. Experts said the long timeline is an acknowledgment of how much investment students may need to recover from this past academic year.

Here are some of the main provisions:

  • About $110 billion goes directly to school districts. States and districts that serve low-income students will get more money per student. About $22 billion of this money must go to address lost learning. The rest is pretty much up to the district.

  • Summer enrichment programs and after-school programs both will get at least $1.2 billion.

  • Programs and grants for students with disabilities will get about $2.6 billion.

  • Private schools that serve a “significant” number of low-income students will get about $2.8 billion. Our colleague Erica Green wrote an illuminating piece about how this provision sneaked into the bill.

  • The plan also earmarks $800 million to identify and support homeless students.

In earlier stimulus packages, K-12 schools received about $70 billion, a financial defibrillator that many districts plan to use to stave off deep budget cuts or retrofit buildings for in-person learning. Mike Griffith, a school finance expert at the Learning Policy Institute, estimates that the new injection of money comes to about $2,400 per student, weighted toward students in low-income, low-performing districts. (In total, the stimulus bills and rescue plans provide schools with an extra $4,000 per student, Griffith found.)

There are few parameters on how districts must use the money, meaning it could be used to fill budget holes, provide critical services — or be squandered. Some experts worry that some of it will go toward things like deep-cleaning, which studies show does little to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

“You really could do almost anything,” said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University focused on education finance policy and practice. “There’s not a requirement that they reopen the schools under any amount of time.”

With so few guidelines, Roza said, superintendents now have to deal on their own with competing interest groups vying for funding.

“You could claim whatever you want to claim as programs to address learning loss,” Roza said. “We’ve seen districts that have seen a lot of enrollment declines and now they’re not getting as much money because they don’t have as many kids. They’re saying, ‘Oh, our investment will be smaller classes. Ta-da!’”

The extended timeline for spending the money has also drawn some criticism from experts. And conservatives have argued that districts will be tempted to use the money to pad payrolls rather than to address learning loss. “The bill is essentially a nearly decade-long subsidy for the unions that supported Joe Biden,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial.

But a long timeline, other educational experts said, is essential to addressing the upheavals of the past year. It takes time to help students regain lost literacy ground, and it takes patience to help students find confidence after a year of remote learning or pandemic-caused failing grades.

And some experts said the flexibility built into the plan will give schools the chance to experiment. Districts could extend the school year (with summer school) or extend the school day (with after-school programs). Or, districts could try more innovative approaches through tutoring programs or a community-school focus, providing students with a lot more than classes.

“If there’s seven months of lost-learning time, you’re not going to make that up in a year, or two years,” Griffith, of the Learning Policy Institute, said.

For a local resource: The Learning Policy Institute and Education Week worked together to create an interactive database to look at stimulus funding on a local level. Find the per-student estimates for your state here.

The bill earmarks about $40 billion for colleges and universities. The money, which is going to both public and private institutions, is more tightly regulated than that reserved for K-12 education. Schools are required to spend at least half on emergency grants to students.

Schools cannot use the money on capital projects, like new buildings, and instead must use a portion of the funds to control the virus and expand their public health services.

As with K-12 funding, higher education institutions that serve low-income students — this time measured in the share of students receiving Pell Grants — will get priority. The bill spotlights colleges with endowments of less than $1 million.

Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

Many smaller colleges have struggled in the financial downturn. Many schools have discontinued majors and laid off tenured faculty. Some have even closed.

  • This weekend, hundreds of maskless students at the University of Dayton gathered to party. The Ohio school has threatened expulsion “in egregious situations.”

  • Students have filed class-action lawsuits against the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, saying they had to pay full tuition for subpar online instruction.

  • One of California’s few women’s colleges, Mills College, will stop enrolling new first-year undergraduates and transition to an institute promoting female leadership.

  • Georgetown College adopted Juneteenth as an official school holiday.

  • A good read from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: The chorale at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania has kept rehearsing in-person, behind masks. “Honestly, it’s what gets me through each week being able to sing with these people,” one student said.

  • New data from Maryland suggests that failure rates doubled or tripled in some districts.

  • Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, stood by federally mandated standardized testing after more than 500 education researchers asked him to reconsider the rules.

  • Chicago plans to start its school year earlier — before Labor Day — in an effort to make up for lost learning time.

  • The U.S. Census Bureau found a sharp increase in home-schooling this year, though some have questioned the accuracy of the data.

  • Massachusetts approved requests from 58 districts to delay full reopening for students in lower grades. Delays may soon come for Boston and Worcester, the state’s two largest districts.

  • New York City parents whose children have been learning remotely in the city’s public schools system can sign up for in-person learning until April 7.

  • A federal survey, the first during the pandemic, found that more than 40 percent of fourth- and eighth-grade students were learning remotely in January, even though three-quarters of school buildings were at least partly open. Racial disparities were stark: About half the white fourth graders were in full-time, traditional school, while a majority of Black, Hispanic and Asian-American fourth graders were learning fully remotely.

  • A good read from The Times: Parents in affluent New Jersey suburbs are fighting to reopen classrooms. The local teachers’ unions have dug in their heels.

  • A good read from The Washington Post: Teachers are fanning out across the country to find missing students. Rich Pimentel, an assistant principal in Indio, Calif., has found students in tents, in homeless shelters, in date-harvesting fields. “I’m here because I care about you,” he said to a student.

Maggie Borgen, 18, has not been inside a classroom since March 2020. Junior year slid by, as did senior year, as she called into school from her home in Montclair, N.J.

“In some ways, it feels like it’s been a year and a half of junior year, not like I’ve been in senior year,” she said.

As the tiring hours of remote school passed, college decisions loomed. Along with her peers, Maggie sat through A.P. classes. She dealt with the pandemic. And she wondered about the year to come — she hasn’t toured all the campuses on her list and has been going on Google Earth to peer at dorms that she may one day call home.

To find camaraderie, Maggie started a podcast: “Second Semester Seniors.” In each episode, she speaks directly to the high school senior experience, offering tips for self-care, hosting candid discussions with peers or asking a guidance counselor about helping students apply to college during the pandemic.

In one episode her friends shared tips about dealing with stress while waiting for college decisions. Be specific and know where you are before decisions come out, one friend suggested. Or, make a list to keep track of acceptances and preferred schools.

“Most of the colleges come out on different days, so I feel like each one comes out, I am going to be ready,” said one guest, Katie. “I am going to know how to interpret the news.”

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