Georgia school superintendents Mary Elizabeth Davis (Henry County), Michael Duncan (Pike County) and Keith Simmons (Griffin-Spalding County Schools) discuss how their districts used federal COVID relief funds.

ATLANTA – A new report looks at how Georgia’s schools are using the influx of nearly $6 billion in federal COVID relief funds that have flowed to districts across the state since 2020.  

While 10% of the funds were earmarked for the state Department of Education, the other 90% went directly to school districts. The federal funding did not come with the usual regulatory restrictions, providing districts with flexibility to use the money to address local needs.  

A new report released by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE) Thursday finds districts across the state are now using the funds to address longer-term needs after initially focusing on immediate needs like boosting technological capacity and ensuring students’ access to food when the pandemic first hit.  

“We … see sort of a trend where the local districts are really moving from crisis management mode,” said GPEE President Dana Rickman said. “Now, they’re really moving more into implementing plans to help students recover from lost learning.”

Despite the shared experience of the pandemic, districts’ responses were marked by “the diversity of adversity,” added Keith Simmons, superintendent of Griffin-Spalding County Schools. 

Each Georgia district faced unique needs and has come up with its own approach to using the funds.  

Most districts have used the money to try to boost students’ academic performance. Around 87% of districts have used the funds to hire additional staff to help address student learning loss via one-on-one or small group tutoring. Many districts also used the money to boost summer learning programs.

Rural Pike County School District faced longstanding challenges with a shortfall of instructional resources prior to the pandemic, Superintendent Michael Duncan said. The relief funds allowed his district to focus on improving elementary literacy. It hired staff members who could help with one-on-one or small group tutoring.  

More than three-quarters of the districts indicated they also used the funds to increase mental health support staff. The pandemic took a toll on student well-being as students lost access to regular routines and the social supports schools can provide.   

For example, in Henry County, the district decided to use the money to establish a mental health and wellness coordinator at every school, said Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis. The coordinator, though not a clinician, is responsible for coordinating a wide variety of social and medical supports for students who need help.  

The pandemic reinforced and amplified what most educators already knew, Davis said.

“It was an absolute dire necessity that the schoolhouse was playing that role as a comprehensive social service provider,” she said. 

Just over half of Georgia districts have used the funds to increase student access to “wraparound services” such as food and housing assistance, according to the report. 

Many districts face staffing shortages, especially for teachers in math, science, and special education, the report found. And nearly half of Georgia districts are using the federal funds to pay for additional substitute teachers, who are in high demand due to the need to quarantine if a teacher contracts COVID.

Pike County faces both substitute teacher and bus driver shortages, Duncan said.

The federal funding boost also presents some challenges. One is the looming September 2024 deadline by which all of the funds must be spent. That means that even if districts have developed effective programs to help their students, the funding for them will end in two years.   

“We’ve seen that students meet goals, but now going into this next budget, now that the extra money is running out, am I going to be able to afford to continue to have this small group interventionalist in place?” Duncan asked. “Currently, I would say that’s probably not going to be able to happen.”  

In recent months, rising costs driven by inflation have forced about half of the school districts to scale back their plans for the funds, Rickman said. 

Statewide, 31% of districts reported using the federal funds to pay for fuel for their school buses. When the spending deadline hits in 2024, districts will have to come up with another source of funds for those costs.  

The state Department of Education wants Congress to extend the deadline for spending education funds beyond 2024, said Matt Jones, chief of staff at the DOE. “We have a divided Congress, but that’s something we’re going to continue to press our congressional delegation to see through.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.