EDUCATION & SCHOOLS

Utah school districts working to prioritize what stays when COVID relief money runs dry

May 14, 2024, 3:42 PM | Updated: 5:32 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s school districts are working to figure out how they will continue to pay for programs, technology, and staff propped up by COVID-19 relief funds.

There’s a Sept. 30 deadline for when the most recent round of funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, runs dry.

The Utah State Board of Education said schools have received over $914 million in total through three rounds of COVID relief money since 2021, over half of that coming from the CARES Act signed in March of 2020 by former President Donald Trump.

The focus was on technology, student mental health, and ventilation — all to help mitigate the impacts of learning loss because of the pandemic. It now will be up to school districts to decide what they continue to prioritize moving forward.

A infographic of Utah's COVID fund for schools from 2021 to 2024.

An infographic of Utah’s COVID fund for schools from 2021 to 2024. (The Utah State Board of Education)

For example, in the Salt Lake School District, spokesperson Yandry Chatwin said they have eight behavior specialists this year, and next year they’ll only have four.

No teachers will be laid off, she said, the specialists will go back into a teaching pool and only signed a one-year contract. But it’s these types of extra support staff that districts will need to prioritize when deciding what they continue to fund.

“I get nervous, I guess, when I worry about trying to find those other funds of money. But our school districts have really done a great job of not being dependent on these funds. So when they end, it’s not kind of a chaos,” said Jessica Kjar, CARES Education Specialist with the USBE.

Another example is Salt Lake City; every kid who needs a computer has gotten one. Now, the district will need to figure out how to pay if those need to be repaired or replaced.

‘This is not sustainable’: How the child care crisis impacts Utah

This money has also made its way directly into kids’ classrooms through a program called Donor’s Choose. This allows teachers to request a donation for supplies or materials that will directly help a project they’re working on with students.

And this money has gone to be a donor for $12 million worth of teacher projects, Kjar said.

“I do worry just kind of about how can we make sure we’re supporting our educators and students going forward, because it is these [local districts] have said this is life-changing money in the impacts of it, but they do recognize it was for a specific purpose and then it is coming to an end,” Kjar said.

Schools have also used it to improve ventilation and HVAC systems, which continue to provide benefits. Kjar said that in the small rural district of Sanpete County, it’s helped them have better air when there’s wildfire smoke.

The CARES funding alone provided more than $516 million to Utah schools. USBE said about 30% of that needs to be spent before the deadline.

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Utah school districts working to prioritize what stays when COVID relief money runs dry