Local schools using federal aid to close COVID gap. It’s working, but will $818M be enough?

Dayton-area school districts have about a year to finish spending $818 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds meant largely to help make up for learning loss during the pandemic. But while the gap is closing, it’s still there, and the future of programs funded with this money is uncertain once the federal funding runs out, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

Ohio K-12 schools got a total of $5.77 billion dollars in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding from federal legislation during the pandemic that was meant to help students recover. There were three rounds of funding: Roughly $400 million in ESSER I, about $1.8 billion in ESSER II and $4 billion in ESSER III. In the nine-county Dayton region, schools received a total of $818 million.

Roughly 54% of ESSER III funds in Ohio have been spent, as well as more than 99% of ESSER I and 95% of ESSER II funds. This compares to about 15% of all funds reported spent at this time last year.

The Dayton Daily News used a combination of public records requests and interviews with dozens of school officials around the region to find out how schools are spending their dollars.

Our investigation found:

  • Schools have been spending the money on getting kids back on track after lost instructional time during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as technology and buildings.
  • Many districts who still have funds are spending it on additional teachers and classroom materials. But schools are also considering what to do and how to sustain some of these programs when ESSER funds run out.
  • While ESSER funding is running out, it’s clear at this point that kids have not fully recovered from the impact of COVID-19.
  • Dayton Public, who received the largest amount of ESSER funding at a total of $143.3 million, according to the Ohio Department of Education, have spent about 61% of the funds, according to Hiwot Abraha, DPS treasurer.

The deadline to spend ESSER funds is Sept. 30, 2024 – which means schools need to spend the majority of their funding by the end of this school year.

What are schools spending this money on?

The millions of dollars are a one-time cash infusion for schools, meant to specifically help teachers and kids recover from the impact of COVID-19.

Schools are spending their funds on a few main categories: technology, additional staff, mental health support, learning recovery, and infrastructure.

Districts were required to spend at least 20% of their funding on helping kids catch up from lost instructional time during the pandemic, and many schools have spent more than that.

However, according to statewide data, kids are still not recovered. ODE data shows that in the 2021-2022 school year, the latest that is available as of August, 60.9% of all students in grades three through eight across the state were proficient in all subjects. That is an increase from the 2020-2021 school year, when 58% of third through eighth graders were proficient in all subjects.

But it’s not enough. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, about 68% of students in grades three through eight were proficient in all subjects.

Centerville has used funds to support literacy training for kindergarten through third grade teachers, specifically around new state standards related to dyslexia, according to Sarah Swan, district spokeswoman.

ODE gave Centerville a five-star rating in gap closing and a five-star rating for progress last year, both of which are measures of how students are improving through the year.

“We have about $1.58 million left to allocate by the end of June 2024,” Swan said.

Centerville has also spent money on updating HVAC systems in multiple schools, including Tower Middle School.

The district has a detailed breakdown of how various categories of this money was spent on its website.

Huber Heights Schools was another district that used ESSER funding for technology, including buying computer equipment and services, paid for tutors in all grades, and also added a new building — a career tech center at the high school.

Jason Enix, superintendent of Huber Heights schools, said the Career Tech Center is finalized and ready for students, as well as on time and on budget.

“Remaining funds are being used to continue supporting salaries and benefits for learning loss/personnel,” Enix said.

Dayton Public spends on building, teachers

Dayton Public Schools received by far the largest amount of ESSER funding in the region, according to ODE funding.

DPS has used their funding for several items, including:

  • Two teachers in each classroom for grades one through three.
  • Partial funding for Welcome Stadium updates and the district’s updated transportation hub.
  • Technology, including Chromebooks for each student and hotspots while the district was still conducting remote schooling in 2021.
  • Bus driver benefits and bonuses.
  • Increasing the number of mental health professionals in the buildings, including student resiliency coordinators.



What will happen when funding runs out?

Since this is the last full school year that K-12 schools can use ESSER funding, many school districts are already considering if and how they are going to continue the programs they implemented with ESSER funds.

Some schools have already asked for and passed levies. But others have found additional funding through programs they’re already qualified for to sustain the funding into the future.

Rick Taylor, Kettering’s interim treasurer, said all of the funds allocated to the district had been spent by July.

Dan Von Handorf, Kettering’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said summer work on Google classrooms, as well as paying teachers for extended workdays to help kids with remediation and enrichment, are no longer happening.

“We have applied for other grants to continue those types of opportunities for kids, but we have not received any yet,” he said.

Bellbrook-Sugarcreek decreased class sizes to provide more support for students, according to Bellbrook superintendent Doug Cozad.

But Bellbrook already has a plan for post-ESSER funding. Cozad said that once ESSER funds are no longer available, funding for positions will be coming out of the general fund, something the district had planned for since the passage of a 7-year, $3.2 million property tax levy in May 2021, which 53% of voters approved.

Dayton Public has put two teachers in each classroom in grades one through three. DPS former superintendent Elizabeth Lolli had those teachers working on different lessons with a small group of students simultaneously, while interim superintendent David Lawrence is using those two teachers to work together on the same lesson to help those students.

The change is happening after DPS’s scores did not improve as much as anticipated this past year, district officials said.

Once ESSER runs out, DPS plans to use a different federal funding source for schools that need a lot of intervention for those teachers.

But other schools say they still don’t know what will happen after ESSER funding runs out.

Mad River Schools put two literacy support teachers into the school which superintendent Chad Wyen said will go back to regular classroom teaching when ESSER dollars end.

Mad River put a 5.9-mil levy on the ballot last November, which would have raised about $1.5 million a year. But about 55% of voters in the district voted no.

“Depending on enrollment, and staffing needs for the 2024-25 school year, we will either maintain our current staffing level, or we will need to make some corrections,” Wyen said.

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