Schools could get extra time to spend COVID relief on building fixes

A classroom closed off to students and faculty with missing ceiling tiles and exposed asbestos in 2019. (Elaine Cromie for Chalkbeat)

Schools may get more time to spend federal COVID relief funding on building renovations, the U.S. Department of Education said in a letter Friday.

The announcement is welcome news for school district leaders worried that inflation and supply chain challenges would make it difficult to finish planned building upgrades before the current September 2024 deadline. 

The department’s letter says states can apply for extensions, giving schools until April 2026 to spend the last bit of COVID funds on facilities improvements.

“We are grateful for the flexibility and clarity that Secretary Cardona is providing around school construction timelines and in particular, HVAC upgrades,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association, which had pushed for an extension.

The move reflects the fact that many school districts have decided to put some of their COVID relief money into facilities projects, especially HVAC upgrades. To some that’s a savvy use of one-time funds, especially in places like Detroit and Newark that received large sums and have aging buildings or other longstanding facilities issues.

But to others, spending emergency funds on construction fails to prioritize the heightened and immediate needs of existing students. Extending the deadline underscores that some of the projects won’t bear fruit for many years after school was first disrupted by the pandemic.

Federal officials are walking a careful line, saying they discourage schools from using COVID relief for “new construction” but giving their seal of approval to upgrading existing buildings.

“The Department does understand the need for schools to address urgent and pressing projects, including school infrastructure projects, intended to safeguard the health and safety of students, educators, and staff during this pandemic,” wrote Assistant Education Secretary Roberto Rodríguez in the letter.

Schools that receive extensions would still have to commit the funds to specific projects by September 2024, but they would have another 18 months to actually spend those dollars. For instance, a district could sign a contract for a building renovation in September 2024 and then pay that contractor over a period of 18 months. 

“Requests for longer may be considered related to extraordinary circumstances,” Rodríguez wrote. 

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AASA, whose leaders have been in discussions with department officials, is telling its members that they can count on waivers.

“We feel confident that [states] will not hesitate to apply for this additional spending runway,” the group says on its website. “Superintendents should feel confident that you have more time to complete and draw down funding for these projects.”

Local school leaders say that the $190 billion in COVID relief from the federal government has been a critical lifeline over the last two years. Schools have used the money to buy devices to allow for remote learning, hire more counselors or social workers, expand tutoring programs, and avoid disruptive budget cuts — in addition to planning building renovations

Fiscal experts caution against spending too much money on recurring costs like staff, making building expenses an appealing option. And research shows that improved ventilation and building quality can boost student learning.

But some advocates and parents want districts to more aggressively spend on students’ current needs.

Detroit recently announced a $700 million facilities plan using exclusively COVID relief funds. The plan, which includes construction of new buildings, is set to be completed by fall 2025. 

At a recent school board meeting, one parent challenged this focus, and suggested hiring more teachers instead. “I really was hoping instead of just seeing the facility plan and the new blueprint and updated blueprint that we would really get an overhaul of staff within our buildings to really supplement the learning,” the parent said.

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