School districts in Nebraska are taking advantage of the massive federal bailout package passed by Congress last year to provide pandemic relief.
They buy everything from buses and bathroom fixtures to stadium bleachers and robots, but the most popular purchase is curriculum – books, online resources and other materials. educational.
The $492 million allocated to Nebraska districts through the American Rescue Plan Act is proving to be less of a bailout than a reward for getting kids back to in-person learning before other states.
Some of the spending is clearly tied to COVID-19 recovery and prevention, mental health and learning loss, according to a World-Herald review of district spending plans.
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Congress has drafted the spending rules so broadly that, with few exceptions, virtually any education-related expense can be justified. Congress has declared that only 20% should be used to combat learning loss. They put few restrictions on spending the rest.
The Plattsmouth Community Schools plan includes the installation of bleachers on the visitor side of their high school football stadium.
“It’s a bit difficult to get proper social distancing when you have a set of bleachers on one side of the pitch,” Superintendent Richard Hasty said. “The goal with the bleachers is to improve the distance between everyone.”
Hasty said the idea for the bleachers came as health officials still recommended separating groups of students to reduce the spread of disease.
“Obviously it happened during COVID, but it’s probably helpful, whatever the health issue, to separate and keep people apart,” Hasty said.
More than two-thirds of districts — including Bellevue and several metropolitan Omaha districts — reported purchasing programs, primarily in the core academic areas of math, science, English language arts, and social studies .
A smaller number of districts plan to purchase a social-emotional program. These are classroom lessons designed to socialize children by increasing their awareness of themselves and society, as well as improving their relationship and decision-making skills.
After the school program, the most popular purchases are heating and air conditioning units, followed by classroom technology – everything from whiteboards to iPads and robots that allow sick or quarantined students to participate in distance in class.
Some districts buy buses, SUVs and vans.
Others are renovating school kitchens and bathrooms, replacing school windows, expanding classrooms and weight rooms, adding playgrounds.
They hire teachers, counselors, social workers, therapists, and curriculum experts.
Some are replacing drinking fountains with bottle filling stations or installing portable air filters in classrooms.
The money comes from the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund – called ESSER III and allocated under the 2021 U.S. Rescue Plan. Districts have until September 30, 2024 to spend their share of the funds.
The first rounds of ESSER funding were allocated through previous federal COVID relief measures, including the CARES Act of 2020.
Schools in Nebraska did not need the rescue as much as schools in other states.
Schools across the state were among the first in the nation to return to offering in-person learning. This meant that the students were not as far behind academically as their peers elsewhere.
Chad Aldeman, policy director at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, said the funding had been beneficial, but the data shows it might not have been as needed in Nebraska.
Just about 3% of Nebraska school districts used cash in the latest round of COVID-19 relief funding, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Districts spent 21% of ESSER II funds and 91% of ESSER I funds.
“They still have the ability to spend that money, but it suggests the reopening wasn’t really based on needing the money,” he said.
Districts in Nebraska spend much of it on normal school expenses or wish list projects that would otherwise require a bond issue or simply sit on the back burner.
Allocations were based on Title I poverty funding, so high-poverty districts received the most money.
Omaha Public Schools, for example, got $194.4 million. About 78% of its students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals last year, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. Elkhorn Public Schools, which has 10% low-income children and about one-fifth the number of students, received $899,000.
It’s almost $3,800 per child versus less than $85 per child.
Of the 244 districts in the state, two districts in Nebraska turned down the money: Cross County and Hayes Center. Five of them received no ESSER III money: Elgin, Arthur County, Exeter-Milligan, McPherson County and Sioux County.
School officials at Cross County and Hayes Center did not return calls or emails to the World-Herald to explain why they had denied funding.
David Jespersen, spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Education, said the five districts that did not receive ESSER money had previously declined to receive Title I poverty funding from the government, in turn taking away their chance to receive COVID-19 relief funds. .
Those districts were still receiving funds from the portion of the money the state received for itself, Jespersen said. In addition to the $492 million allocated to districts, Nebraska has nearly $55 million available for statewide investments.
States were not allowed to cut public school funding and replace it with aid. As a result, federal money represents a significant boost to local school budgets.
Robert Moore, deputy superintendent of Bellevue Public Schools, said the challenge in his district was “finding good ways to make that money work for us.”
“When they all of a sudden say you have $6.3 million, it’s a blessing and a curse,” Moore said of his district’s award. “It’s hard to spend so much money.”