With pandemic stimulus funds sunsetting, Penn GSE expert offers investment ideas

If school districts have remaining pandemic aid, Penn GSE’s Brooks Bowden says they could invest in data analytics capabilities on information to guide decisions on programs, staff, tutoring services, or technology to meet students’ needs.

With federal stimulus funds provided for public schools set to expire in September, many school districts face a pressing challenge: use the money or lose it. Penn GSE Associate Professor A. Brooks Bowden says districts with remaining funds should prioritize spending projects with long-term benefits, including facilities, data analytics, student support, and professional development.

“This is an opportunity to invest in infrastructure and support services, such as new water fountains and improved kitchens, or books for libraries and classrooms. Those are investments that will last,” says Bowden, director of the Center for Benefit–Cost Studies of Education.

Brooks Bowden.
Penn GSE associate professor Brooks Bowden. (Image: Lora Reehling for Penn GSE)

But the clock is ticking. Districts have until the end of September to spend or commit their remaining pandemic relief funds. U.S. schools have an estimated $90 billion in unspent federal stimulus money and, as of last fall, about one-third still needed to be committed, according to a report from consulting firm McKinsey.

In its survey of nearly 500 K–12 schools, McKinsey reported that more than half of schools planned to invest in support for students’ learning needs and well-being. Many students struggled with remote learning and restrictions during the pandemic, and some have not regained their academic footing.

To support students and educators, Bowden suggests funding for professional development for educators and mental health and academic programs for students.

“As effective programs are brought in and provide support, as funding goes away, hopefully, the kids served are better off,” she says.

Using the remaining funds to hire more staff might be tempting, but Bowden urges caution. She notes that schools might have to lay off staff when the money runs out.

Instead, Bowden advises districts to make forward-looking investments with long-term benefits. For example, dated school buildings are deteriorating in many communities, and pandemic funds could cover much-needed repairs and improvements. She also proposes that districts build data analytics systems to create evidence-based results.

“That would help district leaders better understand how to spend their money and use your data to the best ability,” Bowden says.

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