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And now to schools. New staff, new tech and even new classrooms - that's just some of what school superintendents across the country say they're buying, thanks to the windfall of relief dollars Congress has sent their way since the pandemic began. Those are the findings of a recent survey of hundreds of school leaders, as NPR's Cory Turner reports.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: That survey comes from the National School Superintendents Association, and it matters because Congress has sent K-12 schools nearly $200 billion, much of it coming from the American Rescue Plan passed back in March. How big is this infusion of school money?
MARGUERITE ROZA: It's huge.
TURNER: Marguerite Roza runs the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and says of the ARP
ROZA: It's, for sure, the largest one-time federal investment in public education in this country.
TURNER: And school superintendents will tell you the same.
KEITH PERRIGAN: Our annual budget is about $29 million. Since October, we've received an additional $16 million in federal funds.
TURNER: Keith Perrigan heads the schools in Bristol, Va., a small district on the border with Tennessee. And he says this is his 26th year in public education. And you can take all of the extra dollars that he got in his first 25 years...
PERRIGAN: Add them all up, and it's not even close in comparison to the amount of money that we've received in the last 10 months.
TURNER: What are they spending it on? Well, COVID-19, to be sure, including air filtration and testing. But this survey of roughly 400 school leaders focused largely on the kinds of spending that they hope will boost learning. For example, three-quarters said they were spending relief money on summer school and other enrichment activities.
CURTIS JONES: We did a great job, I think, this past summer. We called it summer camp.
TURNER: Curtis Jones is superintendent of schools in Bibb County, Ga., a district of roughly 22,000 students.
JONES: We had music. We had band. We had art. And some students said, hey, this was the best summer school I've ever been to.
TURNER: Two-thirds of superintendents who responded said they also plan to add specialized staff. In remote Anson, Maine, for example, Superintendent Mike Tracy told NPR before the school year began that he was looking to hire four new positions.
MIKE TRACY: Four interventionist teachers next year to deal with learning loss that will specifically work on reading, writing and math.
TURNER: Tracy said one challenge is that the relief money is time-limited, so he's up front with new hires.
TRACY: We'll use that money. It's two-year money. They'll be two-year positions.
TURNER: Another big area of spending - student mental health. But many school leaders, including Rick Surrency, of Putnam County, Fla., south of Jacksonville, told NPR, even though they now have the money to hire more help...
RICK SURRENCY: It's hard. I'll tell you what - it's very hard to find mental health people, especially after the 2018. It was - they were at a premium. So we're having to get creative in how we can do that.
TURNER: And one last big-ticket item on many superintendents' to-do list - renovate or even replace old school buildings, especially in rural areas.
WES BROWNFIELD: Think of rural education as the people's republic of deferred maintenance.
TURNER: Wes Brownfield heads the Arizona Rural Schools Association and says lots of rural school leaders see this money as a chance to make improvements that they've wanted to do for years.
BROWNFIELD: They have lists they inherited from their predecessors, so you bet they're dusting off those lists.
TURNER: There is one problem - Congress wants the money to be used by late 2024. But supply disruptions, worker shortages and state spending rules are getting in the way. Sasha Pudelski of the School Superintendents Association says she's heard from frustrated school leaders in several states.
SASHA PUDELSKI: That it is nightmarish to try and use this money for school construction by 2024. It's nearly impossible.
TURNER: But superintendents also told NPR figuring out how to spend this money is still a very good problem to have and one many of them have never had before.
Cory Turner, NPR News.
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