Finally: Education officials release some public info on billions of COVID-relief funds for schools

By: - September 22, 2021 4:45 pm

School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers

For months now, the state Department of Education has reported very little to the public about billions of federal dollars that were supposed to go to COVID-related programs for public schools.

Wednesday, lawmakers finally found out at least something about the stockpile — they saw some allocations for federal dollars sent to school districts during the pandemic and how much those districts used.

Lawmakers saw that some districts used up specific allocations from the COVID-relief funds, while others left dollars on the table. And it’s clear that there’s still a lot of federal money sitting around to help schools rebound from the impacts of the pandemic.

The issue came up at a House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, when lawmakers came to the Capitol for precursor meetings leading up to the January 2022 legislative session.

“We’ve heard some discussions of ‘I can’t get access to this chunk of federal funds’ or ‘I can’t get access to that chunk of federal funds,'” Rep. Randy Fine said at the Wednesday meeting. Fine is a Republican who represents part of Brevard County and chairs the House PreK-12 appropriations subcommittee.

“Part of why I put this up (data on the COVID-relief funds) for all of us to know, is that those districts that are saying that, they have funds that they haven’t spent that they can have access to right now.”

However, Rep. Robin Bartleman, a Democrat representing part of Broward County, said that school districts have to go through the Florida Department of Education to access these funds.

“To access these dollars, they (districts) have to submit a plan to the DOE. The DOE has to approve it,” Bartleman said at the subcommittee meeting. “There have been situations where it has been bucked back and forth.”

Some districts have advocated for Florida to release more of the federal COVID relief funds to local school boards, including the statewide teacher union, the Florida Education Association, and the school board of Broward County.

Overall, Florida has earmarked some $15 billion dollars for recovery for schools from three COVID relief efforts — two from the Trump administration and one from the Biden administration. Florida has used about $2.8 billion of those funds in all, according to the U.S. Department of Education, though that figure has not been updated since July 31.

According to a slideshow presentation at the subcommittee meeting, the data on COVID-relief funds have different categories and they come from the Trump administration.

The Phoenix is providing some examples of how the money played out.

The first effort is called ESSER 1, Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief.

For Florida, the data show that school districts received $693,223,066. In all, they spent $575,718,230. So districts in that category used up 83 percent of the federal dollars.

There’s also an ESSER, 2, which involves 2020-21 funds and is part of the full ESSER 2 category.  That data show that districts received $847,774,548. They spent $546,802,767. That means they spent 64 percent of the dollars.

“Don’t complain about not having access to round three, when you haven’t spent all of round one,” Fine said at the meeting. That was a reference to ESSER 3 from the Biden administration.

Fine said at the meeting that district spending data is updated weekly, and one of Fine’s staffers told the Phoenix  that the spending information came from the Florida Department of Education. However, it’s not clear how long the Department has had this data or whether it’s been made available to the public.

The Phoenix has contacted the Department of Education several times to find answers to questions about the COVID-relief funds. But there’s been little response.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.