COVID-19 and Schools

Vermont Schools Receive $550M in COVID Relief Funds

Among the three relief packages passed by Congress since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vermont schools and the state’s Agency of Education have received a total of $566 million in federal funding. About $100 million has already been put toward reopening schools, retrofitting buildings for social distancing purposes, upgrading HVAC systems, and other ancillary expenses like hand sanitizer. The rest, though, could be applied to a wide variety of projects that have long been pitched but haven’t moved forward due to lack of funding.

“Everyone’s sort of recognizing that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Jill Briggs Campbell, the COVID-19 federal emergency management funds manager for the Vermont Agency of Education.

Vermont received $31 million from the emergency relief fund package passed in March 2020, $126 million from the one passed in December 2020, and $284 million from the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden last month. The state has already paid for the majority of reopening costs with $103 million from the $1.25 billion allocated from the Coronavirus Relief Fund in March 2020. States were given plenty of leeway in their choice of how to spend the money, but only a limited amount of time to do so.

About 90% of funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund will go directly to schools. These schools have already arranged how to spend the first batch of funds, but they have until 2023 and 2024 to spend the other two batches, totaling just short of $400 million in available revenue.

Allowable uses for the money include funding for special education services, addressing the needs of high-risk students, remote learning technology, summer and after-school programs, mental health support, and certain types of school building upgrades and repairs. “We have an opportunity to not just use these funds for reopening—because we have sort of done that in a lot of ways—but to really use these for those big, sort of intractable problems,” Briggs Campbell said.

Many schools are making arrangements to divert the funds toward deferred maintenance on school buildings. The state is coming out of a decade-long freeze on aid for state buildings, and many of the state’s older schools need serious renovations. “I think school facilities stands out,” said Education Secretary Dan French. “We want to help them do whatever we can to help them focus on facilities after they’ve moved on past what the immediate student needs are.”

The Springfield School District in Springfield, Vt., is scheduled to receive more than $11 million through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Superintendent Zach McLaughlin calls the money a chance for “transformational change” and said he’s facing a dilemma as to how the windfall could do the most good. Voters turned down a bond proposal for some much-needed facilities work in December, but he’s also in favor of moving forward with enhanced programming to help students recover and catch up after a year of distance learning.

“The whole time I’ve been doing this, it’s always been, ‘Let’s do more with less,’ every year,” McLaughlin said. “Now I’m in a situation where it’s like the rich uncle has dropped the money in my lap, and the ability to effectively ramp up projects to use that money in an effective way is more challenging than one would think.”

About the Author

Matt Jones is senior editor of Spaces4Learning. He can be reached at [email protected].