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As pandemic-era relief funds end, rural school districts face tough decisions

A brick sign outside a school building announces the entrance to Western High School.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Western Local Schools received millions of dollars in COVID relief funds over the past several years. As that money dries up, the district faces difficult decisions going forward.

At lunchtime on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the cafeteria at Western Elementary School hums with kindergarteners loading lunch trays with fish sticks and broccoli.

Every student here can eat breakfast and lunch for free, and that’s not all the school offers. The entryway to the district’s administration offices is lined with boxes.

“In some of these, I've got toothpaste, toothbrushes, hygiene items, school supplies, blankets,” said Pete Dunn, the school improvement director. “And so just throughout the day, [students] come back and we just load up what they need.”

Dunn was able to purchase these supplies using a pool of COVID relief money meant specifically for youth experiencing homelessness.

That encompasses a lot of kids in this district. The median annual income here is just about $26,000, said superintendent Brock Brewster.

“We are in the middle of the Appalachian foothills here,” he said, “Poorest district in the state most years.”

Black boxes with yellow lids are stacked against a window in a school building.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Boxes fill the entry way to the Western Local School District's administration offices. They're filled with supplies like sweatshirts, blankets and toothbrushes for youth experiencing homelessness and were purchased using COVID relief funds.

For the past three years, schools across the state have had money to spend, thanks to historic sums of pandemic assistance through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Programs, or ESSER. The deadline to spend the last of those funds looms, and could leave districts like Western Local with difficult decisions on where, and what, to cut.

How ESSER funds helped

The federal government provided three rounds of ESSER funds to school districts across the country with the explicit intention that the money be used for things like preventing the spread of COVID and making up for lost learning time.

Western Local received about $4 million of ESSER funds in total. It used its first round to do things like hire additional custodians and buy masks and plexiglass barriers.

“We spent an ungodly amount of money on masks and on COVID tests,” Brewster said.

But in the years following, the school shifted its focus to hiring more support staff.

“You can only buy so many, plexiglass shields and masks and hand sanitizer if you don’t need a new chiller,” Brewster said, referring to HVAC systems.

The school added reading and math intervention instructors to help kids who fell behind, plus several aides and a clinical mental health counselor.

At first, Brewster said the district was hesitant to hire more people, since ESSER funds were a one-time benefit and salaries a recurring expense. But, he said, the school was receiving so much money and it was clear that staff would make the biggest difference in making up for lost learning.

“So we decided to hire staff and just go ahead and just roll with it and do our best,” Brewster said. “It would be hard to spend that much money otherwise.”

Staff members say the investments were a huge help.

“Last year was our first year [in a long time] that all of our sixth graders were reading,” said elementary school principal Bethany Whitt.

An empty hallway inside a school building
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom

But all along, they knew these investments would be temporary.

“The danger of it is if you get a really, really good teacher in here that's doing a bang-up job and is really making things better, in three years [when the COVID aid ends] you have to let them go,” Brewster said. “We don't have the financial resources to keep them any longer.”

“And the problem is you get used to them. And then they're taken away. You really feel now: how are we supposed to do this without these people?”

This dilemma is why some school districts in Ohio used the ESSER funds to instead pay existing staff, like school nurses, saving what they would have spent on salaries to build up their coffers, according to the Brookings Institute.

The end of ESSER funds

The September deadline to spend the third and final round of ESSER funds is rapidly approaching. Without them, schools like Western Local will have to either cut the staff they hired or find other areas to reduce spending.

In a way, poorer schools like Western Local are at a particular disadvantage.

ESSER funds were allocated to provide the most support to the highest need schools. Now that they’re going away, those schools have the farthest to fall. And they’re falling at a time when student need is still high.

“Our second graders right now were in preschool during [COVID] time, or maybe in the home prior to preschool,” Principal Whitt said. “So we see a lot of struggles from like our second grade students like the communication, the lack of self-coping skills. There's just a lot that our students still need.”

And unlike urban schools, when this small, rural school loses funding, there aren’t many other local service providers to step in.

“They got food pantries and we don't have that stuff,” Brewster said. “We are the geographic center and the social center of everything.”

So now, Brewster’s looking for new grants, trying to do what he can to make sure every student experiencing homelessness can find a toothbrush and every sixth grader can read.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.