Kids are wrapped up in their sweaters at Sibley Elementary in south suburban Calumet City on a recent morning. They’re told not to sit too close to the windows or they’ll get hit with a chilly draft. After all, the windows are the same ones from when the building was built in the 1950s. And the warm weather will bring a new set of issues for this school, as well as the others in the Dolton school district.

This story also appeared in WBEZ

“Three of [seven buildings] will not have air conditioning this year because the equipment completely broke down,” said Jay Cunneen, financial consultant for Dolton District 149 and the former superintendent. “We ran it so long and hard to try to give fresh air to our students.”

Dolton is one of Illinois’ chronically underfunded school districts, which means it must make difficult spending decisions at every turn. For years, the district said no to improvements that were not absolutely essential, such as replacing aging windows or installing a modern HVAC system. The pandemic prompted the injection of federal COVID-19 relief money — which has allowed districts across the state, including Dolton, to finally begin to catch up.

Dolton plans to spend about $12 million of the $20 million it is receiving in federal money on desperately-needed new windows and HVAC upgrades. All told, Illinois received $7.9 billion in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants for pandemic-related issues like health and safety, social and emotional learning and addressing learning loss. Low-income districts are receiving considerably more than wealthier communities.

Districts, well-resourced and not, are prioritizing spending on teachers and counselors, in addition to spending on COVID-related equipment. But then plans start to diverge.

For districts with the most low-income students, ESSER lets them spend on things needed before COVID hit as long as the investment is tied to responding to the pandemic, such as improving air quality. This flexibility is a boon for administrators but presents a quandary, too: Money spent on fixing infrastructure, for example, is money that doesn’t go toward addressing learning loss, which was among the most serious impacts of the pandemic on students. This dilemma illustrates the depth of underfunding in education.

“The research shows that kids living in poverty, special education and ELL [English Language Learner] kids — those are the kids most vulnerable to learning loss during the pandemic,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University. “They’re the kids who need the most catch up.”

Jordan analyzed thousands of spending plans and found that the more low-income students a district had, the more likely it was to invest its federal money in HVAC systems and facility repairs. She says studies have shown that old ventilation systems can make students sick, forcing them to lose instructional time. She also found it was more common for low-income districts to spend on classroom basics, such as textbooks, than in wealthier communities.

“Those [low-income] districts were also more likely to invest in instructional materials than the richer districts,” she said. For “affluent districts, [the] No. 1 academic intervention was summer learning, and certainly poor districts are spending on that as well, but when it came to priorities, they were prioritizing instructional materials more.”

Jordan says affluent districts had more up-to-date instructional material and devices like laptops before the pandemic. They were better poised to switch to remote learning and help their more vulnerable students.

“We really needed this”

The state of Illinois has been slowly trying to improve conditions for underfunded schools through a five-year-old evidence-based funding model. By law, the state must increase state dollars for the neediest districts each year, but it’ll take several years before those schools are considered adequately funded.

As a result, getting a large lump sum through federal COVID relief dollars is significant, showing just how far behind these school districts are.

“When the money came, I’m like, ‘We really needed this.’” said Dellnora Winters, director of grants and transportation in Dolton School District 149.

But she wishes they’d had that infusion of cash well before the pandemic began. In the thick of remote learning, long-existing disparities in education were exacerbated. “Maybe it would have helped with the learning loss curve that we were going to enter into in 2020, 2021,” Winters said.

The federal government accounts for a district’s population size and poverty rate in calculating the size of its ESSER grants, but Dolton administrators wonder if those metrics alone truly show what districts have struggled with over the years.

Students in Angela Caravetta’s second grade homeroom practice measuring objects during a math lesson at Burnham Elementary in Cicero. The school district regularly makes difficult choices on where to spend its scarce dollars. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

In Cicero, another underfunded Illinois school district, the ESSER money means they can repair their HVAC systems and build something most schools already have: playgrounds.

“If you were to drive through an Elmhurst or Hinsdale or Downers Grove, you’re going to see a playground at every school,” said Anthony Grazzini, director of grant and accountability for Cicero District 99, which is 88% low-income. “Our kids have blacktop, and we’ve worked diligently to make that work.”

Grazzini says schools may take playgrounds for granted, but he considers it an investment in social-emotional learning to allow kids to reconnect through play. It’s something the district hasn’t been able to offer most students until now.

“There are the fixed costs, which are the cost of staff, and that takes up a great majority of our budget,” Grazzini said. “We have to save where we can, so we can spend where we need to. Sometimes, you kick a can down the road for something that really should be a priority.”

When the COVID-19 relief money runs out

A large low-income district like Cicero is getting a large infusion of cash from ESSER — $60 million. In addition to spending on HVAC repairs and playgrounds, it’s also investing in academics, including a literacy curriculum.

Wealthier districts are also getting ESSER grants for pandemic expenses, albeit in far smaller amounts than in districts like Cicero and Dolton. With less pressing needs for infrastructure repairs and basic instructional materials, some of those better resourced districts, after spending on COVID mitigations, have more room to invest in programs that mostly enhance the student or teacher experience.

Gower, a small southwest suburban district with just two schools, is getting $947,000. Gower Supt. Victor Simon said the district is fortunate that it could spend on wraparound services, but also on a teacher bonus during what is arguably the most taxing period of their careers. Schools across the country are facing a huge teacher and substitute shortage. Simon said his district tried to get ahead of that by using about 60% of its ESSER money to give each teacher a $2,020 bonus as a show of support.

In Lake Bluff, another small district, the unfinished learning was significant in math. They used their relief funds to hire a math specialist. Supt. Lisa Leali says they were in a better position than most to weather the difficulties of remote learning.

“We were already offering wonderful programming, high-quality use of technology, high-quality curriculum,” she said. “There were many districts that weren’t able to do those things for their students prior to the pandemic.”

She thinks other districts could use even more resources on top of the ESSER funds.

In Dolton, Cunneen says the district has been able to do much more than spend on infrastructure, including beefing up academic and social-emotional support. But for schools that were behind before the pandemic, he doesn’t think the influx of spending will bring them to a level playing field.

“If we could ever realize that the investment in education comes back tenfold in what happens when the students graduate from high school or college, it’s a great investment,” Cunneen said. “The federal government through ESSER realized that and prioritized it. And yes, I have a huge worry that it will all go away.”

The COVID relief dollars must be spent by September 2024, and the phrase “supplement, not supplant” is often used when schools are making their plans.

Some districts are already considering budget adjustments to keep new hires past 2024. But Cunneen doesn’t think Dolton, his perennially cash-strapped district, can do that. These are life-changing funds, but he worries they’ll have to go without once the money is gone.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

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