AN INTENSIVE FOCUS on reading skills. Tutoring. More mental health services. Cleaner indoor air. More teaching aides for English learners. Summer activities for more students.

These are some common themes in the plans that California school districts and charter schools have adopted for spending a huge amount from the latest round of federal COVID aid: $13.6 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed in March.

Districts have nearly three years, until Sept. 30, 2024, to spend the money, which is more time than what’s allowed for many one-time grants. School boards had until Oct. 29 to approve their spending plans, after consulting with the public for suggestions. With the final sign-off earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Education, they are entitled to all of the funding.

Not that they’re hurting for money at the moment. They’ve already received an additional $13 billion in funding from two rounds of federal COVID relief since March 2020, plus billions in one-time and ongoing funding from a record-high state preK-12 budget.

All of this money presents a unique opportunity to meet the needs of students most impacted by the pandemic, said Liz Guillen, legislative advocate for the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates. But meeting those needs requires “thoughtful planning, because districts are just getting a lot of money thrown at them in a short period of time,” she said. That’s why Public Advocates and other advocacy groups persuaded the State Board of Education to grant another planning month beyond a Sept. 30 deadline.

As the third round of funding under the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the American Rescue Plan Act funding is also referred to as ESSER III. California’s full share is $15.3 billion. Gov. Gavin Newsom controls 10 percent, which he is putting toward vaccination clinics statewide and expanded learning grants for summer school, an extended day, or a longer school year.

Congress required that school districts spend at least 20 percent of the funding to address lost instructional time during the pandemic due to school closures and distance learning — most districts committed far more — as well as to address students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs.

They also can spend it to create a safe and sanitary school environment. Congress also required that, in their plans, districts must show how they will respond to the needs of all students impacted by COVID, particularly “underserved students,” who include low-income students, English learners, migrant children and students with disabilities.

COVID funding can be used to pay salaries to prevent layoffs, but can’t be used “for bonuses, merit pay and similar expenses” unless they’re related to school closures and disruptions, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But other than requiring that districts justify their learning-loss spending with research-based evidence, Congress gave districts latitude to make decisions. And they granted a catch-all option for districts to spend what’s necessary “to maintain the operation of and continuity of services” and to continue “to employ existing staff.”

SAN FRANCISCO UNIFIED took that literally. Faced with a massive operating deficit, it is applying $56 million of its $96.7 million American Rescue Plan Act allotment to this year’s special education and general operating budget. In justifying the action, the district said the alternative — budget cuts — “would compound the trauma and challenge faced by students throughout and because of COVID-19.” That also will leave less than $40 million for the next two years.

Most districts applied the law’s flexibility to districts’ needs and, to an extent, what parents, teachers and students say they most want.

Some districts are planning new initiatives with some of the money. For Long Beach Unified, it’s the $7.6 million High School Success Initiative, a college intervention and acceleration program targeted at ninth-graders. Elements include a math collaborative with STEM activities, student leadership academies and the We RISE curriculum, which Superintendent Jill Baker said, “helps students who may have been struggling to find their voice in a really productive way and to lean into this idea of being a successful student.”

“We thought about coherence of a plan and not just looking at something that looks shiny on the outside but doesn’t really help us to build the future of the school district and support students right now.”

Superintendent Jill Baker, Long Beach Unified

For Oakland, it’s $7 million to launch teacher visits to the homes of their students to have a kitchen table talk with parents; the money will cover training, which will include parents, and the cost of sending teams of two — the teacher and a facilitator — to the homes.

Many are viewing the money as an extension of their Local Control and Accountability Plans, which school boards adopted in June. In the LCAPs, districts document how they will spend the bulk of state funding through the Local Control Funding Formula, including the supplemental money they get specifically for low-income students, foster and homeless children and English learners.

Many districts use annual federal funding for high-needs student groups to be consistent with priorities in their LCAPs. Long Beach Unified has taken that tact by tying one-time COVID  money to the district’s 2021-22 Learning and Acceleration Plan. Its plan has four “pillars”: academic acceleration, social-emotional well-being, community and student engagement and future building and classroom needs. All spending decisions for $212 million from the American Rescue Plan Act fit into one of them. Long Beach then divided the total into equal thirds to stretch the funding out over three years.

“We thought about coherence of a plan and not just looking at something that looks shiny on the outside but doesn’t really help us to build the future of the school district and support students right now,” Baker said.

SAN JOSE UNIFIED took the simplest version of that approach. Its $28 million from the American Rescue Plan Act equaled an extra 7.5 percent of its budget, so it added that percentage to the major spending categories. That way, said Ben Spielberg, director of community engagement and special projects, spending is “totally consistent and aligned” with the LCAP, with its focus on equity.

Even though the one-time federal and state funding will end in 2023-24, some districts plan to add or already have added significant numbers of teachers and staff. They argue they must respond now to students’ learning deficits and social and emotional issues. They hope that between staff retirements and healthy state revenues they can sustain the new staff. Lodi Unified plans to add 70 teachers, aides and other classified workers. West Contra Costa Unified’s agreement with teachers calls for adding 120 teachers and support staff to lower class sizes in K-3 grades and cap sizes elsewhere.

Pajaro Valley Unified in Watsonville added 58 intervention teachers, instructional assistants, and social emotional counselors and psychologists. Long Beach, jumping early into the hiring market, hired 400 teachers, social workers, psychologists and counselors and will be using the American Rescue Plan Act funding to sustain those positions.

But the reality is a staffing shortage, which predated the pandemic and now is compounded by competition among districts, may undo hiring plans, acknowledged Robert Sahli, Lodi’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. For many districts, new positions will go unfilled. Hiring will be the biggest challenge, he said. Lodi may have to reset expectations; the plan for the federal money will be “a living document,” he said.

Instead of adding instructional staff, Vallejo City Unified will pay teachers for more time: subject to bargaining, $7.5 million to work a half-hour longer each day, $2.2 million for 20 minutes extra prep time per week, and $2 million to extend the year during intercessions and summers for targeted student groups. It’s not clear from the plan whether this was parents’ preference as well; community focus groups were held in March.

For districts with declining enrollments resulting in a projected loss of revenue, like East Side Union High School District in San Jose, the American Rescue Plan Act funding will help sustain the workforce they have, not further expand it. East Side Union instead is aiming to broaden contracts with community agencies for counseling and telehealth in new school wellness centers, said Teresa Marquez, associate superintendent of education services. “We’re hesitant to hire social workers with one-time dollars,” she said.

HOW MUCH A district gets in federal funding also may temper its ambitions. All federal COVID dollars combined average more than $4,000 for each of California’s 6 million students. But the actual amounts vary widely. They mostly were determined by a district’s Title I entitlement, federal aid tied to poverty rates.

For wealthy communities, it’s hundreds of dollars per student: $353 in Los Gatos Elementary in the Bay Area and $656 in Manhattan Beach Unified. For low-income, urban districts, it can be 20 times as much. Among those at the top of that list are the state’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, which alone was allotted $4.6 billion. That comes out to $11,144 per student.

Other top beneficiaries include Fresno Unified, with $10,510 per student, Compton Unified, with $9,900 per student and Stockton Unified, with $7,512 per student.

As with previous rounds of funding, districts can use the funding for personal protective equipment, Chromebooks and software, ventilation systems and COVID testing. Some districts without facilities bonds to tap are committing a big portion of their funding for those costs.

Pajaro Valley is budgeting 60 percent of its $36.7 million for air quality improvements and creating outdoor classrooms. Buttonwillow Union School District, a K-8 district with 328 students in Kern County, will use $1.3 million of its $1.7 million to replace aging portables and include space for their birth-to-3-year-old and parent education programs.

This latest round of federal COVID funding was the only one that required districts to create a spending plan based on public input. Congress mandated that districts “meaningfully consult” with students, teachers and other staff, parents and administrators, along with civil rights organizations and advocates for students with disabilities, incarcerated youths and migratory youths — students who are not always covered under the LCAP process.

The template that the California Department of Education created for the spending plan required that districts not only elaborate on how they conducted the outreach but also how they were influenced by it.

The department said that districts could use information gleaned from public participation during the LCAP process in preceding months. Based on a spot check of a dozen federal spending plans, many districts relied on that earlier input. After school resumed in August, some districts didn’t hold hearings on the federal spending plan, and attendance and the responses to surveys in other districts was limited. Immediate issues consumed the districts’ and parents’ attention: contention over masking mandates, substitute teacher shortages, and quarantine logistics. Principals in nearly every Pasadena Unified school invited parents to share their thoughts on the funding but attendance, for most part, was sparse.

“It was a challenge to bring people together” to discuss the federal funding plan, Sahli, of Lodi Unified, acknowledged.

There appears to be “fatigue among community groups” tracking multiple plans for COVID assistance and new state programs, said Nicole Gon Ochi, senior attorney for Public Advocates.

IN A REPORT last month, California State Auditor Elaine Howle criticized the Department of Education for insufficiently monitoring districts’ federal COVID funding. Without more district audits, the state won’t know if money has been misapplied, she said. The department made no commitments.

But unlike the first two rounds of funding, every district’s American Rescue Plan Act spending plan will get an initial review by county offices of education. They’ll be verifying the minimal requirements — whether they addressed  post-pandemic social and emotional needs, and that they meaningfully consulted specified constituencies. The Santa Barbara County office said it would verify that districts presented research-based strategies regarding learning loss.

The U.S. Department of Education has not yet detailed the requirements for districts’ reporting. Districts do need to file invoices to be reimbursed for expenditures, and federal law requires that districts complete an annual accounting of American Rescue Plan Act expenditures. The State Board of Education is requiring that districts issue an update by late February on “the successes and challenges” they’ve experienced in implementing their plans. That should provide the public with a broad sense of how the money is being spent. Meanwhile, districts will have the authority to modify the plans however they decide is necessary. If they do, they’re required to notify the California Department of Education and post the revised plans.

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, said it will be difficult to track how districts are spending the money. The broad categories of spending will obscure spending patterns across states, she said. During the Great Recession, there was little good information on how states spent the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and “most people will be disappointed by the data we will be getting now,” she said.

The state plan includes a useful section that Congress did not require. Districts were asked to cite the assessments and metrics they will use to monitor the spending actions. Some districts’ measurements are extensive and specific: monthly student reading levels in San Diego Unified, monthly reviews of community partners’ work in Pajaro Valley, annual measurements in Elk Grove of the impact of extended learning during summers and intercessions. Over time, the data should provide evidence of whether the infusion of revenue for the student groups that Congress targeted is proving effective.

Guillen, of Public Advocates, suspects it won’t be in districts that simply add more money to strategies in their LCAPs that weren’t effective before the pandemic struck and assume it will be now.

Baker, of Long Beach, is optimistic. She said the impact of COVID has spurred the district to reimagine the classroom experience. It’s reflected in the adoption of restorative justice practices, in systemwide professional training in social emotional learning, and in the $45 million the district will invest in new furniture that encourages collaboration, she said. Along with making a multimillion dollar investment in reading acceleration, the district is changing its post-pandemic approach to literacy instruction.

The challenge will be in three years, she said, when the money runs out. “If we see huge growth in students reading by third grade, which we’re expecting, then we’ll need to really look at how to sustain what’s proven to make a difference for our students.”

EdSource data analyst Daniel J. Willis and reporters Diana Lambert, Zaidee Stavely, Carolyn Jones and Ali Tadayon contributed to this article. 

This story originally appeared in EdSource.