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Teacher Jessica Flores directs students as they work on laptops in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School on, Aug. 25, 2020, in Denver. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning during the pandemic. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

With less than a year-and-a-half until school districts must spend all their federal COVID-19 relief dollars, district leaders are confronting an increasingly urgent question: How will they continue supporting student and teacher mental health, recruit and retain school staff and address other needs intensified by the pandemic without more sustainable funding?

They’re scrambling to answer that question as many districts grapple with escalating mental health struggles and worsening teacher shortages — concerns that have become chronic since the pandemic began.

“In order to really make improvements around the conditions that have been outlined here, we need sustainable funding,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project. “The current funding that we have within our system does not allow for that, and so how do you elevate that to an issue so that it is funded for every school district and for students and not through something that is a grant?”

Districts last month passed the halfway mark on the timeline set by the federal government for spending all COVID-19 relief money through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, programs. To get a better picture of the kinds of needs Colorado districts and communities see as the most pressing and more clearly understand the challenges they continue to face, the Colorado School Finance Project and the Colorado Education Initiative conducted a statewide survey. They released results last month. 

The ESSER Mid-Point Survey found that challenges that arose early in the pandemic remain top-of-mind concerns among education leaders and teachers three years later — including student emotional support and behavior, vacant staff positions and staff social and emotional support. Many districts have spent some of their ESSER funding on those priorities, but they have also been stretched between other urgent needs, such as Internet connectivity and technology, meal distribution, health and safety supplies and equipment, and infrastructure upgrades to support better airflow.

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The midpoint survey collected feedback from district leaders, teachers, school leaders and community members between mid-January and early February, with 371 people who responded from 124 school districts and three Boards of Cooperative Educational Services. Together, those districts and BOCES educate 81% of students in Colorado public schools.

Federal rules limited how schools could spend federal COVID-19 relief dollars. The first infusion of ESSER funding, given to districts in mid-June 2020 to spend by last September, was dispersed to districts to help them respond to immediate needs created by the pandemic. That included feeding families, buying personal protective equipment, and investing in technology and curriculum support to accommodate online learning. 

Esperanza Raimirez works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning. (AP Photo, David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The second round of ESSER funding, given to districts in February 2021 to spend by this coming September, was intended to help schools regain a sense of stability. That included helping students who were learning at home or through a hybrid schedule, improving airflow and quality in schools, supporting students and teachers with their mental health, aiding teachers who had to adjust their teaching style while moving to remote instruction, and continuing to feed families.

The final round of ESSER money is focused on helping districts with their academic recovery efforts, such as summer school options, different interventions for subgroups of students and continued mental health support. Districts must use those funds by the end of September 2024.

Colorado districts haven’t had much trouble figuring out how to spend their relief dollars. Districts spent 99.9% of dollars from the first round, known as ESSER I, and have already spent more than 86% of their funds from ESSER II, according to Rainey.

But they have discovered that money won’t solve all problems born during the pandemic — particularly when the funding is one time.

“Districts aren’t worried about spending their money,” Rainey said. “What they’re worried about is being able to find those teachers or those staff that they need to fill those positions, and that’s become the challenge.”

Sustainable funding is particularly crucial for staffing schools, said Rainey, whose nonprofit organization has been tracking how districts have been spending ESSER dollars, coaching districts through compliance rules for relief dollars and also providing tools for districts that help them illustrate the impact their investments are having on students.

“No one wants to be in a position of hiring people for a few years and then not being able to retain them when you see that there’s quality outcomes from that and at the same time it becomes a real challenge for districts in their budgeting process,” she said. “And you’re going to start seeing some of those conversations come up this year as districts plan for this because they’re not going to wait until next year. They’re going to talk about this now.”

Other top concerns identified in the survey range from persistent achievement gaps, which particularly affect students with special needs and low-income students, to the possibility of cutting programs to students lagging with attendance and engagement in their coursework.

The survey also highlighted pressing needs across communities that have direct consequences for schools, with district leaders, educators and community members worried about a lack of affordable housing, the availability of mental health and counseling services and insufficient child care, among other issues.

The halfway point of ESSER funding cycles is an important time for schools and districts to pause and assess ways to support ongoing needs once ESSER funds expire, said Samantha Olson, vice president of strategy at the Colorado Education Initiative, which focuses on improving Colorado’s public education system and creating greater equity.

Districts must reflect on how they are using relief funds and how they are building sustainable models to tackle issues and trends that Olson said are “the new reality, that aren’t just the lingering impact but that are not going to go away, that will remain priorities and that we as a field need to be designing to address long term.”

Mitigating a funding cliff across schools

After the pandemic shuttered schools during spring 2020, the state’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, funneled a significant portion of relief dollars into an effort to retain teachers and school support staff.

“We basically had to ask the question, what are our biggest priorities right now? And we knew that we wanted to maintain all of our staff,” Chief Financial Officer Chuck Carpenter said. “We knew the pandemic was hopefully going to be temporary, and so we maintained staffing levels, including in areas like our bus drivers and our food services and other things that are … dependent on the number of kids that are there.”

Of the nearly $23 million DPS received in round one of ESSER funding — a small part of which it was required to send to private schools while most was shared between district-managed schools and charter schools — the district designated more than $4.5 million to teacher salaries and more than $1.2 million to benefits to preserve staffing levels following significant cuts in state funding.

Reyna Najera works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning from a school in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Separately, more than $1.8 million helped the district avoid laying off up to 58 school nutrition staff members, who were critical in preparing and distributing meals to students and families.

DPS receives money for the meals it feeds students from the federal government and parents, and revenue took a drastic hit when schools pivoted to remote learning. ESSER funding helped fill in the gap, Carpenter said.

The district also committed funds to helping students adapt to remote learning, including with a $1.5 million purchase of a digital science curriculum to replace outdated curriculum and align with learning standards.

The district received an additional $94.4 million for ESSER II funding and $210.8 million for ESSER III funding — two sums of money the district has looked at together when engaging the community about how to spend it.

DPS is still finalizing the details of ESSER II spending, Carpenter said, but one major priority has centered on upgrades to some of its facilities, an investment exceeding $20.6 million. Many of those projects have targeted repairing and replacing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to better filter air and improve airflow in schools. The district has also installed indoor air quality sensors in every school.

“These are not recurring funds, so we want to put them into projects that you need right now,” he said. “And those things are really aligned with COVID.”  

An additional bucket of ESSER II funding totaling more than $8.7 million has been distributed directly to DPS schools to help their students regain academic ground after learning disruptions.

The district is tapering the amount of relief funding given directly to schools from ESSER II and ESSER III, repeatedly cutting in half the amounts it allocates to schools each year. 

“When the funding goes away, there’s less of a funding cliff for the schools,” said Katie Hechavarria, executive director of finance for DPS.

That approach is necessary as those funds evaporate next year, Carpenter said.

“We also had to know that everything we were doing we were going to have to be able to go without,” he said.

“Educational needs are consistent, and to have big influxes of money is helpful,” Carpenter added. “It’s also not helpful when the money goes away.”

No guarantees to retain new hires

In a much smaller district in southern Colorado, Superintendent Toby Melster used ESSER I funds to transform technological capabilities in hopes of keeping students on track while learning from home.

“We were kind of behind the eight ball,” said Melster, who heads Centennial School District R-1 in the San Luis Valley. “We weren’t prepared to be going remote. So in order to make sure we could provide that education for the kids, we had to ensure we had the technology in place.”

The district, which educates 165 students, used part of the $127,981 it received during the first round of federal relief to invest in a livestream setup for educators so that children could watch their teacher while tuning into lessons from home. The district also purchased large television monitors for teachers so they could see all their remote students more clearly while instructing, replaced old computers for staff and invested in a more robust set of online classes and curriculum, Melster said.

Students from San Luis Centennial School District R-1 in San Luis, Colorado play outside in the sun, still wearing masks. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Stocking up on the right cleaning supplies and hiring another custodian to keep the district’s one school building as safe and sanitary as possible was equally important. Melster also used ESSER I money to buy staff members masks and face shields, gloves, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer and to equip the district’s four janitors with disinfectant, commercial cleaners, cleaning cloths and electrostatic sprayers.

With ESSER II funding — which totaled $521,196 for Centennial School District — Melster prioritized giving staff members hazard pay as a thank you for re-entering the classroom while the virus was still stirring up fear and uncertainty. Thirty-five full time staff members were awarded $2,500 while four part-time staff received $1,250.

He also devoted part of the funds to hiring two paraprofessionals who could assist teachers as they returned to school alongside students and tried to catch them up.

Melster is confident the district will be able to keep those paras on staff past next year’s spending deadline.

“You move those chess pieces within the budget,” he said.

But when he first hired them, he had to be blunt, telling them, “Our goal is to do our best to keep you, but I can’t make that promise.”

It’s the kind of caveat superintendents across the state have faced when directing one-time relief dollars into staff and programs.

As to whether districts are effectively spending federal relief funds to help students rebound from challenges brought on by the pandemic, Rainey, of the Colorado School Finance Project, said it will take more time. The pandemic has dragged on for three years, after all, and kids don’t simply snap back.

“So the challenges of recovery may take longer than what you have funding for and in many cases will,” she said.

The stakes are high, particularly as districts continue to help students overcome learning setbacks, help communities recover from the pandemic and address challenges that predate COVID-19, including staff shortages and mental health struggles among kids and educators.

“These are huge issues,” Rainey said. “Yes, those issues were here before COVID, but they’ve gotten much worse. Now you really are in a situation of needing to have that sustainable funding because if you don’t have it, people will go away, programs will go away, but the issues won’t go away.”

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin