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What does the end of pandemic recovery funds mean for schools and students?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A funding cliff - that's what many public schools could face when they return to classes in the fall. During the pandemic, the federal government rolled out Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds, hundreds of billions of dollars, money that made a big difference for a lot of public schools. With the abrupt switch to remote learning, social isolation, a global pandemic, kids were really struggling.

PEYTON CHAPMAN: The needs were greater. You know, you can't learn if you're not regulated and feeling safe and making healthy decisions.

DETROW: That's Peyton Chapman, principal of Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore.

CHAPMAN: We ended up, at schools, having to meet all the social services needs - increased homelessness, increased drug and mental health issues.

DETROW: To help provide for those needs, her school received some of the roughly $190 billion handed out by the federal government over the last few years to support K-12 education. With few restrictions, districts could use the funds wherever they were needed most.

CHAPMAN: At my school and in our district, we chose to use ESSER funds for targeted tutoring, extra time for teachers to meet one on one with students outside of class time, credit retrieval work to make sure that they could stay on track for graduation.

DETROW: Some districts hired additional staff to provide for the emotional needs of students.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: We were able to stabilize mental health conditions in the lives of students with the hiring of psychiatric social workers, of counselors, partnering up with community-based organizations to provide these services to students but also their families.

DETROW: That's Superintendent Alberto Carvalho of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country. Educators across the country say the additional funds helped students catch up, and Chapman says plenty of her students still need that support.

CHAPMAN: Some 90%, even, of the students in my school as sophomores now seem to be bouncing back. But the 10% that, you know really are struggling are struggling harder and harder.

DETROW: With the funding ending, schools will need to reassess. That might mean ending some of that programming. It might mean layoffs. It will almost certainly mean more work for the teachers, who are, in many cases, pretty burned out.

CHAPMAN: Teachers have hit a wall. They just don't have the time.

DETROW: So what does the end of this funding mean for American schools and the students they serve? We spoke with Wall Street Journal education reporter Matt Barnum. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MATT BARNUM: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: You know, before we start talking about the funding, it has been such a challenging stretch for education. As best as you can sum something up nationally, how would you sum up the state of things in K-12 education world right now?

BARNUM: So on the one hand, if you talk to teachers or walk into schools these days, many of them say that schools feel normal again after these unprecedented disruptions during the pandemic. But - and there's a big but - the aftereffects of the pandemic, of school closures, of the various things that happened after 2020 linger in schools. And we see that in the data. We see that students are still behind where they might have been academically. Test scores are still lower. And they're still not showing up to school as often. We don't have great data on this school year, but last school year, there were much higher absence rates than in a typical year before the pandemic.

DETROW: And I know that we've heard from a lot of educators who are worried that this money going away is going to hurt those causes because they've used it to fill the gaps or enrich programming to help students make up those goals. But let's start at the beginning of this. What was the initial goal of this funding?

BARNUM: So there have been three separate tranches of money starting in 2020, soon after the pandemic and then culminating in the American Rescue Plan, which included money for K-12 education, and that passed in 2021. And all in, those three separate tranches were close to $200 billion for public and private K-12 schools. The money was described as emergency COVID relief, and schools were generally given discretion to spend it as they chose, as long as there was some connection to preparing, responding, addressing COVID needs. There was some stipulation in the very last tranche from the American Rescue Plan that at least 20% had to go towards learning loss recovery, but other than that, schools had the discretion to use the funds as they saw fit.

DETROW: It seems like it's a real stretch to try and suddenly make up that money when it's going away. There are real implications for students here. How are educators that you're talking to thinking about making their way through this next fall?

BARNUM: Well, I think one thing that we don't know is just how steep what is being called the fiscal cliff or funding cliff. We don't quite know how steep it's going to be. And that is, you know, $200 billion, so that's a lot of money. And before the pandemic, the typical total spending on education was about 800 billion or so. The $200 billion, though, was spread over multiple years, and we don't know to what extent states or local governments are going to be able to pick up the slack. So that is just the sort of uncertainty that we don't have a good answer to at this point, and I think it's going to vary from place to place.

That said, school leaders, school officials, teachers are certainly concerned. They're worried that a kid who might have benefited from an after-school program that focused on catching them up on math, that that's going away when they're still behind. Or a kid who may be benefited from small class sizes, they're going to have a bigger class size, and that's going to drag down their learning gains.

Or they're worried that they're going to have to just do a lot of layoffs, and the disruption of that is going to hurt students. I've also reported on the possibility of school closures because budgets are tight, and also large school districts have lost a lot of enrollment. And we know that school closures can have a destabilizing effect on kids. So we don't know how big the problem is going to be, but there's certainly reason for some concern.

DETROW: Were there any - you know, all the different ways that we measure things in K-12 education - were there any efforts to see how this particular federal money was affecting school performance?

BARNUM: So the short answer is, at this point, we don't have a lot of definitive evidence, and that's a big question. That is the $200 billion question. What did we get for this money?

DETROW: Yeah.

BARNUM: If you talk to folks in schools, I think many of them are going to say, you know, this was very impactful. This made a big difference. But some policymakers are like, look, students are still behind academically, you know, did we really get a great return on this investment? Could this money have been spent more effectively? We do know from data from about a year ago that students are still behind academically, but we have seen them start to make some gains. To what extent that has to do with the COVID relief money or what that would look like without that money, that's not clear.

DETROW: Can you talk broadly about the particular challenge that lower-income schools and school districts are facing here, based on how the money was initially doled out?

BARNUM: So the money was distributed in a way that the highest-poverty school districts tended to get more of it, and the logic behind that was that they faced greater challenges. Their students were more affected by the pandemic, both academically and otherwise, and there's some evidence to support that. But then that means they're also facing the biggest funding cliff, and they could face the most disruptions because of the loss of that money, especially if there isn't other money to fill that gap. I would worry that those students are still behind, more behind academically. And we know, of course, there's longstanding test score gaps. So those students, although they maybe have benefited from that money, they also may be facing the most disruption as the money goes away.

DETROW: That's Matt Barnum. He covers K-12 education for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much.

BARNUM: Thanks, enjoyed the conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.