ExtraOrdinary Districts Season 5: Where Are All Those Dollars Going?

ExtraOrdinary Districts returns for a fifth season to look at how educators are using the $189 billion the federal government sent to schools to help them cope with the effects of the pandemic.

In four episodes, Ed Trust’s writer-in-residence, Karin Chenoweth, talks with expert educators from large and small districts who say that, without federal funds, reopening their buildings would have been unimaginable.

They spent much of the money on COVID mitigation — which includes everything from masks and tests to much-needed ventilation improvements. But they’ve also used it for new curricula, teacher training, staff recruitment, and much, much more.

During the podcast, listeners will learn about the pandemic-induced problems still facing educators around the country, including shortages of bus drivers, substitute teachers, social workers, counselors, and school nurses.

They’ll also learn that many experts think this infusion of funds presents a unique opportunity to improve reading instruction, by allowing schools to purchase full curricula, including classroom libraries and books that students can take home, along with training for teachers and principals. .

Here’s a little background about the federal COVID relief money for education, which came in three waves:

  • The first wave of aid, passed in March 2020, included $13.2 billion dollars as part of the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act;
  • The second wave provided $54.3 billion via the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, which was passed in December 2020; and
  • The third wave provided an additional $122 billion as part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) Fund.

They are often referred to as ESSER 1, ESSER 2, and ESSER 3.

As Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne School District in New York, said, “That’s a lot of money. But also a lot of need.”

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How are Schools & Districts Using the Money That the Federal Government Has Provided to Help Them Get Through the COVID Crisis?

Are you wondering how school districts are spending the money the federal government sent them to get through the COVID crisis? Karin Chenoweth, a writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, has been talking with educators around the country for Season 5 of ExtraOrdinary Districts.

Karin explores how this once-in-a-generation investment in education is being used to meet the immediate needs of students during the pandemic and to set up long-term strategies to address inequities.

Subscribe today to ExtraOrdinary Districts wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you haven’t already, be sure to listen to the first four seasons (many of our guests in Season 5 are folks we’ve talked with before).

Episode 1

Where Are All Those Dollars Going?

In Episode 1, we talk about the big picture with Phyllis Jordan of Future Ed, a Washington think tank that has been tracking how districts are spending the money. She says that what is very clear is that what she calls “under-resourced districts” are using much of their money for immediate needs, such as repairs or to prevent illness. We also talk with Dr. Luvelle Brown, a superintendent in Ithaca, New York, and Dr. Corey Miklus, a superintendent in Seaford, Delaware, about how much of their ESSER funds had to be spent to keep students and staff safe from illness. And Seaford’s director of building services, Doug Henry, explains what it takes to retrofit old buildings so that they repel water and circulate air properly. 

Episode 2

Addressing Learning Needs

In Episode 2, we sit down with Tricia McManus, superintendent of Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, who says that her district is trying making the most of its relief money by using it to address pressing needs and invest for the future. She’s spending on everything from COVID mitigation and new curricula to contracting with community “violence interrupters” to help mentor and engage students. She is also hiring an evaluator to ensure that the district will be able to see what works and needs to be extended and what doesn’t and needs to be stopped. “I don’t believe we’ll ever have this opportunity again,” she says, adding that “This is a lot of money and we’ve got to be able to show some results.”  We also talk with Dr. Tracy Epp, chief academic officer for Richmond Public Schools, and Tyra Harrison, executive director of teaching and learning for the district, who say that the infusion of federal funds has helped the district pump up its literacy program, which is now “on steroids,” thanks to a new literacy institute, investments in teacher training, a new reading program, and the purchase of classroom libraries and books for students to take home.  

Episode 3

Leading the Way

In Episode 3, leaders in two states explain how they are using ESSER funds to pursue statewide improvement efforts. In Delaware, recently retired state superintendent, Dr. Susan Bunting, along with Dr. Michael Saylor, education associate for school leadership initiatives, and Dr. Jackie Wilson, director of the Delaware Academy for School Leadership, note that their state has developed a leadership pipeline that includes teacher leaders, assistant principals, principals, and superintendents, in response to the fact that 40% of current principals and assistant principals will be eligible to retire in the next five years. In Maryland, we hear from State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury, who is using $150 million in grants to encourage Maryland’s 24 school districts to “choose their own adventure” and adopt two or more improvement strategies — ranging from the science of reading to Grow Your Own teaching force — that are proven effective. He notes that even small districts are eligible for large grants.   

Episode 4

A Dream Project, Staff Shortages, and Canceling the Ku Klux Klan—Wait, What?

In Episode 4, we hear from Melinda Young, superintendent of Steubenville City Public Schools, Kayla Whitlatch, Steubenville’s treasurer, and Lynnett Gorman, the district’s federal grants administrator, about how ESSER funds are allowing Steubenville to construct a STEM building connected to the high school, which they view as a long-term investment in students’ dreams and post-pandemic economic growth. “This is the money to use for our dreams that we probably would never have had enough money to do any other way,” Young says. In Geary County, Kansas, Dr. Deb Gustafson, associate superintendent, and Jennie Black, director of curriculum and instruction, say their ESSER funds are being used for essentials — like improving the knowledge and skills of teachers, raising pay for substitute teachers, paying for math and ELA curricula, and — they hope — hiring cooks to improve school lunches.