Pioneer Study: Specifics on School Pandemic Relief Spending Hard to Come By

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Little evidence that districts are measuring impact of their investments of COVID-19 relief funds

BOSTON — With the deadline for spending $2.9 billion in federal pandemic relief funds now less than a year away, it’s difficult to know exactly how Massachusetts school districts are spending the money and what impact those expenditures are having on students, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

“The federal money was intended to be used for COVID-19 recovery and other non-recurring expenses,” said Dr. Cara Candal, author of “Federal Pandemic Relief Funding for Massachusetts’ Schools: Where Did It Go and What’s Next?” “Hopefully districts have done that so they won’t face a ‘fiscal cliff’ next September, which is the deadline for spending the money.”

With all the money not yet spent, it’s difficult to assess the impact of district spending choices on students, but there is little evidence of districts measuring that impact.

Massachusetts school districts received the $2.9 billion in three tranches. The first was largely used for providing emergency technology solutions and building remote learning capacity, the second focused on safe school reopening, and much of the third is being spent to mitigate learning loss.

The money flowed from the federal government to state education agencies, which were required to pass 90 percent of it on to school districts. Districts had great flexibility to determine how the money should be spent but had to submit plans to the state detailing their spending plans.

While there is subsequent reporting to the state on how districts are spending the funds, much of it is broken into broad categories such as “classroom technology.” The EdImpact Consortium, a collaboration of local educational, business, and other nonprofit organizations, broke the spending into five categories covering a wide range of topics.

Those topics include investments in quality curriculum, flexible student support, assessments, teacher professional learning, smaller class sizes, intensive tutoring, academic intervention, specialized online coursework, and additional staff for high-priority subjects.

Anecdotal data indicate that for the second and third tranches of funding, districts chose to focus on investments in summer learning, tutoring, and classroom and curricular supports.

Some districts used the money for much needed facility improvements, such as to upgrade or install new ventilation systems. The Atlantis Charter School in Fall River spend most of its funding on a new building designed to enable more individual and small group instruction.

The Boston Public Schools have hired 1,429 personnel at a cost of $82.5 million. Most are support staff such as para-educators and teachers’ assistants. Falmouth has spent all its money on temporary staff, finance, and operations.

These choices could translate into big layoffs and raise questions about whether the districts can sustain these initiatives once the federal funding is gone. The 2019 Student Opportunity Act, which directed an additional $1.3 billion to districts over the last three years, may help those districts avoid a fiscal cliff.

Among Dr. Candal’s recommendations are that districts focus their remaining money on evidence-based strategies, focus on high-quality formative assessments and employ accountability measures that help close learning gaps, be transparent about what did and didn’t work, and work to sustain the interventions that were shown to be effective.