Schools are getting record money under COVID-19 stimulus. Will it help kids who need it most?

Employee bonuses. Extended learning time. New textbooks. Building upgrades. More teachers, social workers and tutors. 

School districts are poised to spend a windfall of federal money on those items and more as $81 billion from the latest federal coronavirus relief package flows into their coffers this week. How effectively the record education spending will help jump-start learning, fully reopen schools and address students' social and mental health needs remains a question.

"One of the expressed purposes is to focus on students who were most impacted by the pandemic and on addressing their academic and social needs," Ian Rosenblum, an acting assistant secretary at the Department of Education, told USA TODAY.

Schools received $122 billion as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March – the largest one-time infusion of federal money for schools in American history.

Department of Education officials said 31 states have begun sending school districts their shares of the initial $81 billion aimed at spurring a massive academic and social recovery.

The other 19 states have not yet because they either need approval from their legislatures or because of their state grant processes. Those states are Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

By June 7, states must tell the Department of Education how they plan to spend the money. The remaining $41 billion of the $122 billion will be released after that.

Stimulus package:States and cities receive first chunk of $350 billion in aid

Plans still vague on helping the most disadvantaged students

Some experts are unconvinced districts are tailoring their plans to heap intensive support on students who have been the most disengaged over the course of the pandemic. 

Researchers at the EdunomicsLab at Georgetown University, which follows education finance issues, reviewed school board documents and draft budgets. They've mostly seen plans for employee bonuses, building upgrades and new staff hires, said Marguerite Roza, director of the lab.

“It has come across, at least in this first wave, as very ‘one size fits all,’” Roza said last week in a webinar. “We're not seeing much in the way of new delivery models or new content or new course offerings.”

Rosenblum said the Department of Education expects to see more tailored plans for struggling students in the documents from states due June 7.

The department is encouraging states and districts to use their new funds to expand access to vaccines, such as by establishing vaccination sites at schools. Other examples of spending underway include:

  • Bibb County Schools in Georgia allocated about $2 million for United Way tutors to coach students struggling academically.
  • Miami-Dade Schools in Florida put $50 million of its relief funds and other federal grants toward hiring staff for summer programming, so the district can serve 65,000 students. Typically, about 5,000 Miami-Dade students attend summer school. 
  • Dallas Independent School District in Texas will extend learning time to 6 p.m. at 60 of its lowest-performing schools.
  • Cleveland Metropolitan Schools in Ohio will spend $10 million of its relief funds on teachers, $3 million on new instructional materials and $2 million on new books.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.