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The $190 billion in emergency funds given to schools during the pandemic is ending

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Four years ago, schools around the country began closing their doors because of COVID-19. To help school districts weather the pandemic, Congress gave them $190 billion in emergency funding. That aid is expiring soon. NPR's Cory Turner sat down with school leaders from across the country to find out how students are doing, and what schools will do when that pandemic aid money runs out.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hundreds of principals and superintendents came to Washington recently to meet with their lawmakers, and I sat down with a dozen of them altogether over lunch. Four years after COVID first turned their schools upside down, I asked, what is their message now to members of Congress?

JOHN GIES: I think the biggest message is, is that we need help.

TURNER: John Gies runs a high school in rural Ohio, and he says while those pandemic dollars are running out, the problems the pandemic exploded, like missed learning and a student mental health crisis, are still here.

GIES: There's just a number of things - now it's starting to be absenteeism - that we just really need some help from the government.

TURNER: Everyone in the room said that money has paid for important services, and most said when it runs out, so will those services.

GORDON KLASNA: We use our money for people to help with the learning loss.

TURNER: Gordon Klasna is in charge of secondary education in Billings, Mont.

KLASNA: Now those people are going to go away, and I have a fear that we're going to go backwards.

TURNER: Those people were essentially extra educators in classrooms for kids who needed extra academic help. Klasna says he was honest with them at the start, that their jobs would likely only last as long as those relief dollars do.

KLASNA: They know the cliff is coming. They wanted to help kids, and they took jobs knowing that they might not have them.

TURNER: This is not unusual. Early research suggests districts spend about half of their federal money on people, though that includes new people as well as pay raises and COVID bonuses. In Jackson, Ga., Principal Suzan Harris says she's had to help students who are missing fundamental skills.

SUZAN HARRIS: At the middle school level, you're having students come in with two or more grade levels behind in reading, and middle school teachers are not teachers of reading.

TURNER: So Harris got creative, and she paid a first grade teacher to come to her middle school and provide reading support. She says those students are now averaging a year and a half's worth of reading gains, just since the beginning of this school year.

HARRIS: Now, that's not typical.

TURNER: In Washington, D.C., high school principal Anita Berger says she used her relief dollars to pay for extra learning time before and after school and during the summer.

ANITA BERGER: I have 100% of my seniors on track for graduation, and that's a big lift.

TURNER: The problem, Berger says, is sustaining that progress after the relief money runs out.

BERGER: Once we lose the funding, we're not going to have the money. We have to figure out what - where do we rob Peter to pay Paul.

TURNER: Besides using the money to make up for missed learning, another biggie for the group was student mental health. Matt Haney, a high school principal in Maine, says he's been lucky.

MATT HANEY: We're a coastal community. We have more resources than some of our neighbors.

TURNER: He was able to hire a couple of clinical counselors and will be able to keep them by folding them into his regular budget. But Haney knows that takes money that lots of lower income districts don't have.

HANEY: Many of my colleagues around Maine - I was just talking with some of my peers who were here now - both of them are going to lose their school nurse.

TURNER: Just outside of Chicago, middle school principal Raul Gaston says his district used some of those federal dollars to hire outside mental health specialists.

RAUL GASTON: All that will be gone. Right now, when we refer someone to the DuPage County Health Department, there's a six-month wait. And a six-month wait for a child in crisis, in need, it's too long.

TURNER: So what happens now? It seems unlikely that Congress will be in the mood to agree on even more funding for schools. Which means in the coming months, districts across the country will face some hard choices about whether they can afford to keep giving students all the help they need.

Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.