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Louisiana public schools slow to use federal coronavirus aid

Louisiana

A student cleans his hands with hand sanitizer as educators welcome students on the first day of class at Lake Harbor Middle School with coronavirus restrictions Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Mandeville, La. St. Tammany Parish schools are opening with a quarter of students returning to school each day this week to assist in coronavirus precautions along with temperature checks, hand sanitizing at the door and face masks. (Max Becherer/The Advocate via AP)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Nine months after Louisiana’s public schools received $287 million in federal coronavirus aid to defray pandemic expenses, school systems still have not spent more than half that assistance even as they are slated to get another round of more than $1.1 billion.

The first federal allocation — approved by Congress in March and sent to districts in late April — was supposed to help with costs of computers, personal protective equipment, summer school and other expenses related to the virus outbreak.

But The Advocate reports data from the state education department shows $146 million remains unspent.

“The wheels of a big system sometimes move slowly,” said Wes Watts, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and West Baton Rouge Parish schools superintendent.

State officials are sending messages to local superintendents, directors of federal programs and business managers urging them not to delay spending the money, and detailing how it can be used.

“They were cautious on whether they would have to carry it into next year as well,” state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said. “They did not know that they would be getting additional dollars.”

But now, Louisiana schools are receiving more than $1.1 billion from the latest round of pandemic aid passed by Congress in December. Districts will be able to spend 50% of their allocation starting in June and the other half starting in January 2022.

Public school classrooms were closed in March 2020 during the early stages of the pandemic. School leaders were forced to rely on distance learning for the rest of the school year, with mixed results amid a shortage of computers and other devices and gaps in student access to the internet.

Currently, 64% of students are getting in-person instruction, with the rest relying on virtual learning or a combination of online and in-person classes, according to the education department.

The West Baton Rouge Parish School District has spent most of its roughly $900,000 in federal aid to ensure all of its 4,000 students have computers or other devices.

“The struggle with it is you can only use it for certain things,” Watts said. “Maybe they need teachers, and you can’t spend it on that.”

In some cases, Watts said districts have committed their share of federal aid but have not yet spent it.

Michael Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said local superintendents were reluctant to spend all the aid at once because of concerns about future needs.

“Now with this second stimulus, you don’t have to have a cushion because you are going to get a whole lot more,” Faulk said.

Half of the second round of federal aid is set to go to districts in March along with guidance on how it can be used. Local districts will start crafting budgets for the money in April. State officials will review those plans in May and the money will be available for spending in June.

Brumley said priority for federal aid will be to ensure schools can offer in-person instruction.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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