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  • Writer's pictureRachel Langan

Addressing Learning Loss: Solutions for Spending COVID Relief Funds

Three years ago, the nation’s schools received the first installment in what would become the largest infusion ever of federal funds for education — $190 billion to not only safeguard against COVID, but reverse the academic crisis that followed.

Evidence of the damage from a year of remote learning was inescapable: major setbacks in reading and math, thousands of students unaccounted for and high rates of depression and misbehavior.

In the years that followed, the funds undoubtedly did some good. Some districts used the money to offer summer school for all of their students, provide one-on-one tutoring parents could never afford on their own and hire thousands of new teachers.

Pulling from this article, we'll look at solutions that worked -- solutions that our candidates would propose and support if elected to the WCASD board. (View the full article here.)

Amid staggering declines in achievement, officials say it’s easy to forget the severe threat that COVID posed especially in predominantly Black communities. The cost of masks, testing and contract tracing were justified, said Cathryn Stout, communications chief for the Memphis-Shelby County Schools, one of the districts The 74 profiled.

But as schools emerged from those nerve-wracking early days, they faced a new pressure: Spending the federal money wisely on a relatively short timeline. Many districts tapped the temporary funds for routine expenses, like payroll and membership fees for professional organizations.

Solution #1: Allow Families to Use ESSER Funds for 1x1 Tutoring

Relief funds have also fueled major upgrades to reading instruction and creative efforts to improve learning and school climate, initiatives many districts hope to sustain once the funds dry up.

Many districts offer evidence — in the form of higher test scores or improved behavior — to demonstrate the value of projects launched with relief funds. In Illinois’s Monmouth-Roseville, for example, students who received tutoring outpaced their peers’ growth in literacy and math in 2022.

COVID aid brought tutoring, once a perk reserved for more affluent families, to students who previously had no access to that level of support.

The relief funds have been “transformational for tutoring,” said Susanna Loeb, a Stanford University education researcher leading efforts to expand and evaluate tutoring programs.

While the response to many virtual, on-demand programs has been disappointing, districts that stuck to high-dosage tutoring — generally defined as meeting in small groups, three times a week, with the same tutor — say it’s bumping struggling students up a grade level and helping them pass end-of-course tests. Too few students, however, have had access to that level of support. Federal data released in February showed that 80% of schools were offering some form of tutoring, but only 1 in 10 students had access to the high-impact model experts recommend.

Solution #2: Consider Staffed Resource Rooms for Mental Health Breaks for Elementary Aged Students

As part of its plan to spend $19 million on mental health, the Memphis-Shelby County Schools opened 60 “reset” rooms where students can cool off when they become disruptive or seek help if they’ve been bullied.

Tito Langston, the district’s interim chief financial officer, called it money well spent. Before White Station Elementary opened one of the special classrooms, it wasn’t unusual for Langston to get a call during the school day because of a behavior problem with his own child, who has autism. Now, his son has a place to refocus.

“He called me and said, ‘Dad, I went to the reset room. I feel better now,’ ” Langston said.

Schools with reset rooms, for example, were expected to see at least a 3 percentage point reduction in out-of-school suspensions. An early 2022 report showed the district was meeting that goal, but it hasn’t posted more recent data and board meetings have been consumed by controversy over the district’s search for a new superintendent.

Solution #3: Gather Data To Determine What Works and What Doesn't Accurately measuring if popular programs or policies have been effective at helping students recover learning lost due to school closures is not easy.

“There’s so much money that it must have done something good,” said Kenneth Shores, an assistant education professor at the University of Delaware. But the pandemic aid offered a rare chance to quickly test which recovery efforts were most effective.

“That learning opportunity,” he said, “was totally squandered.”

Researchers need to know which students received extra help to determine if it made a difference.

Solution #4: Be Flexible and Open to New Ideas Many districts are less than limber about changing course when projects don’t work out.

“I talked to one district team who admitted that their new social workers hadn’t been successful in getting attendance back up, so they thought maybe they’d invest in even more social workers,” said Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. “Rarely do we see a district question whether an investment is working and deliberate on ending it.”

“My guess is that in the [coming] years,” he said, “we’ll see lots of people say, ‘You know, schools got $200 billion and we don’t have anything to show for it.’ ”


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