published : 2023-09-06

Schools Struggle as COVID Relief Funding Dries Up, Leaving Students Behind

Large swaths of America's students remain academically behind as schools across the US cut programs and staffing

A photo of Davion Williams, a determined high school student from Detroit, taken with a Nikon D850 camera.

Davion Williams, a sophomore at a Detroit charter school, had dreams of going to college.

But he quickly realized that he would need help navigating the complex application process.

To his disappointment, his high school had just laid off its college transition adviser due to budget cuts.

This adviser had previously provided support with financial aid applications, transcript requests, campus visits, and more.

Unfortunately, this kind of setback is becoming increasingly common as COVID relief funding dwindles.

School districts across the country are being forced to wind down programs like expanded summer school and after-school tutoring as a result.

The relief money, amounting to approximately $190 billion, was initially intended to help schools address the challenges posed by the pandemic.

One such district, Montgomery County in Maryland, has made the tough decision to reduce or eliminate tutoring, summer school, and other programs covered by federal aid.

Robert Reilly, associate superintendent of finance, explained that this was necessary to avoid increasing class sizes.

However, parents like Laura Mitchell, a vice president of a districtwide parent-teacher council, feel that more needs to be done.

An image of a classroom with students and a college transition adviser assisting them with financial aid applications, taken with a Canon EOS R6 camera.

Mitchell highlighted the crucial role tutoring plays in supporting struggling students and expressed concern that cutting back on these services will leave them behind.

With school districts having until September 2024 to allocate the remaining funds, many are bracing themselves for even more significant cuts in the next budget year.

Some districts have already indicated that they will have to reduce staffing, such as tutors and reading coaches, and cut summer learning programs.

The full impact of these cuts is yet to be determined and will depend on the individual district's preparation and access to alternative funding sources.

While states have recently been receiving generous funding for education, they too face potential budget challenges as their temporary federal aid runs out.

School officials, such as Superintendent T. Lamar Goree in Shreveport, Louisiana, admit that their financial resources are already depleted.

They fear having to make tough choices like cutting math teachers and jeopardizing successful programs aimed at addressing learning gaps.

Critics of the COVID relief funding argue that it may not have been sufficient or sustained enough to tackle the significant decline in student learning.

However, education finance researcher Lori Taylor explains that school officials had considerable discretion in how they spent the money.

Different districts invested in a range of initiatives, from HVAC upgrades to professional development.

A photo of a group of students receiving after-school tutoring and support, taken with a Sony A7 III camera.

As for the impact of the funding, research is limited, with one study indicating improvements in math but no significant changes in reading scores.

Despite the ongoing debate, school officials generally agree that the relief money has made a difference.

Adriana Publico, project manager for COVID relief funds at Washoe County School District in Nevada, wonders what would have happened without the aid.

She believes students would have been even worse off.

Nevertheless, as funds continue to deplete, school systems like Washoe are reducing after-school tutoring hours, eliminating teacher coaches, and questioning the feasibility of future summer school programs.

Fortunately, some districts, including Detroit, carefully allocated federal COVID money to mitigate the severity of cuts.

Although expanded summer and after-school programs have been phased out, the funds were used for much-needed building renovations in aging campuses.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti acknowledges that tough decisions had to be made but recognizes the importance of college transition advisers.

As the budget dwindles, school districts must navigate the difficult path of prioritizing resources and finding the balance between immediate needs and long-term investments in education.