The city has an unprecedented infusion of federal aid funding to help schools recover from the pandemic, and plenty of ideas on how to spend it – but school officials say the process is taking a long time, thanks to factors like lack of available personnel and supply chain issues.
The federal government awarded $7 billion in COVID-related relief money to New York City schools over the next three years for academic recovery, infrastructure upgrades and training resources for teachers.
Of the $3 billion in federal funds allocated for this fiscal year, $2 billion has already been spent and education officials repeatedly point out any remaining money will roll over into future funding.
“We don’t intend to leave funds unspent,” Schools Chancellor David Banks said in testimony about the executive budget Tuesday at City Hall.
In April, the city comptroller’s office released a report that found the Department of Education was “running far behind” on spending federal funds for “the critical areas of academic and instructional support, and social and emotional wellbeing.”
“Nine months into the fiscal year, DOE has spent less than 25% of funds allocated in those categories,” the report said.
“Our students are counting on us to use this unprecedented influx of federal funding – all of it, not just a fraction – to deliver the academic and emotional support they need, as a result of two hard years of pandemic loss and disruption,” said Comptroller Brad Lander in a statement at the time of the April report, calling on the DOE not to “squander” the federal funds.
School officials now say the DOE has spent another $500 million of this year’s aid allocation since the comptroller’s report came out.
“We’re super grateful for the additional funding,” said Lindsey Oates, chief financial officer for the public schools, at the Tuesday budget hearing. “We have been spending this funding through the school year, we’re going to continue to spend it.”
The opportunities to spend the federal aid are plentiful, from hiring more teachers and staff, to updating classroom equipment, to funding more enrichment offerings.
School officials said much like other consumer goods, orders of classroom furniture are backlogged. “Items are delayed,” Oates said. “We can’t actually pay the bill until the items are delivered.”
Council Member Rita Joseph, who is the chair of the Council’s Education committee, also urged the DOE to dedicate more funding and dedicated personnel to work with the most vulnerable students: the estimated 100,000 kids who live in shelters or transitional housing.
“The DOE received over $9 million in (federal) funding specifically intended to support students who are homeless and is expected to receive an additional almost $24 million for the same purpose,” Joseph wrote to Chancellor Banks in a May 2nd letter asking the DOE to hire at least 100 more shelter-based community coordinators who assist students in shelters.
“Your administration has an opportunity to strengthen the education-specific resources available to students in shelter, who must overcome significant obstacles to even attend school while also bearing the trauma of housing insecurity,” Joseph wrote. “We have an obligation to seize this opportunity and to set our city’s children on a path towards their long-term success.”
Without directly commenting on Joseph’s request, the DOE said they have nearly 350 dedicated staffers who work with students and families living in shelters, including 100 social workers and 107 community coordinators working in schools.
The federal stimulus package also included $350 million awarded to schools directly for student tutoring and teacher training, which expires at the end of the school year in late June.
The unspent portion of the $350 million will return to the DOE’s general fund but schools who don’t spend their funding lose out on fulfilling their own wishlist. Chalkbeat has reported that schools may have difficulty spending their share of the $350 million because of restrictions and lack of personnel: “While they can spend the money to pay teachers overtime to run any programs they create, they can’t hire new full-time staff since the funding is temporary,” and that “some schools have found it difficult to persuade burned-out staff to work overtime.”
Education officials say the federal funds aren’t expiring this year and will be used appropriately.
“This funding continues to be available to our public schools beyond this year, and we are actively planning on how to use this money in the best interest of students and schools moving forward,” said DOE spokesperson Jenna Lyle in a statement. “The Department of Education is wholly committed to ensuring every student and school has access to the resources they need to succeed.”
Lyle said the DOE’s current priorities include expanding the free Summer Rising program to more eligible students, developing career pathways for students to work in healthcare and tech, improving the DOE’s response to families needing translation and interpretation services, and adding more resources for literacy and dyslexia support.