With new aid, schools seek solutions to problems new and old

Full Screen
1 / 8

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this March 31, 2021, file photo, freshman Hugo Bautista eats lunch separated from classmates by plastic dividers at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan., on the first day of in-person learning. With a massive infusion of federal aid coming their way, schools across the U.S. are weighing how to use the windfall to ease the harm of the pandemic and to tackle problems that existed long before the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

With a massive infusion of federal aid coming their way, schools across the U.S. are weighing how to use the windfall to ease the harm of the pandemic — and to tackle problems that existed long before the coronavirus.

The assistance that was approved last month totals $123 billion — a staggering sum that will offer some districts several times the amount of federal education funding they receive in a single year. The aid will help schools reopen and expand summer programs to help students catch up on learning. It also offers a chance to pursue programs that have long been seen as too expensive, such as intensive tutoring, mental health services and major curriculum upgrades.

“This feels like a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to be able to make critical investments," said Nathan Kuder, chief financial officer of Boston Public Schools, which is expecting $275 million.

But the spending decisions carry high stakes. If important needs are overlooked — or if the money does not bring tangible improvements — schools could face blowback from their communities and from politicians who influence their funding. At the same time, schools must be wary of dreaming too big and taking on long-term costs they cannot sustain.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the assistance allows schools to “hit the reset button” and confront challenges that have long plagued the nation’s education system. He said schools can train teachers in social and emotional learning and work to close persistent racial disparities in education.

“With successful implementation, our students are going to have a better experience than they did before the pandemic,” Cardona said in an interview.

Districts with higher concentrations of poverty will get the largest sums. Public schools in some cities are expected to receive more than $1 billion, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The new money joins more than $67 billion made available to schools in other relief packages during the pandemic.

Schools must reserve 20% for summer programs and other efforts to address learning loss, but they expect to have wide flexibility in how to use most of the aid. With more than three years to spend the new money, school leaders are thinking big.