With pandemic aid expiring and most funds already spent, schools across Illinois face a financial cliff

Bronzeville Classical Elementary School educator Shamika Keepers had never imagined spending her days teaching outside a traditional classroom. But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown learning off course for a whole generation of students.

Now, Keepers is one of two staffers in positions added to counteract learning loss, providing additional one-on-one instruction, often called intervention, to students in need of extra help, as well as coaching humanities teachers new to the profession or school. She also provides accelerated instruction to students in need of more challenging material.

Keepers initially wasn’t keen on leaving her classroom, Bronzeville Principal Nicole Spicer recalls. But, with the impact of the pandemic apparent in students’ engagement and test scores, Spicer said she “poked, prodded and begged” Keepers, a dynamic teacher with proven results, to step into the role.

“I hadn’t seen myself not working solely with students. But I actually love it,” Keepers said, recalling a student who went through intervention last year. “He took his assessment again this year and he’s not on the list to receive intervention. … All he needed was a little bit of extra push, outside of the classroom, on the specific skills that he needed.”

Hiring interventionists is one of the myriad ways school districts have invested federal emergency relief funds since the pandemic, said school finance expert Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.

Regardless of how the funds were applied, school systems across the country are now facing the same financial cliff. These funds must be committed by September 2024 and spent by January 2025, raising questions on the sustainability and impact of new, federally funded investments.

Without the extra funds, the “COVID cohort” of students who faced disruptions in learning resulting from school closures, quarantine and prolonged remote learning could see the learning deficits translate to lifelong earnings losses, according to Stanford University economist Eric Hanusek.

Because people who know more, as measured by standardized tests, tend to earn more, the average monetary impact of learning loss could be equivalent to a 6% lifetime tax on earnings, Hanusek wrote in his analysis of historical earnings patterns and testing data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress in 2020 and 2023.

“If we don’t catch them up, we’re sending them out into the world with many fewer opportunities than their predecessors had,” Roza said.

Of the $7.8 billion in federal funds provided to Illinois schools since March 2020 — when Congress passed the first of three bills creating an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER — over $5.8 billion has been spent, according to Illinois State Board of Education data as of Dec. 7.

ESSER legislation allowed state education agencies to retain 0.5% of the total aid to cover grant administration costs and to distribute another 9.5% — $440 million in Illinois — at their discretion.

Among the $2.9 billion total allocated to Chicago Public Schools, the largest district in the state, $72 million funded the staffing of an interventionist at every district-managed school — one of many new investments that prompted U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to hold up CPS as a national model for thoughtful spending in October.

Across Illinois, major initiatives funded by ESSER dollars include the implementation of social-emotional learning curricula, the construction of new facilities and the expansion and electrification of bus transportation, according to school administrators who spoke with the Tribune.

CPS faces a $391 million deficit in the 2024-25 school year, for which the district is hoping gains on test scores and a historic graduation rate will prompt state officials to fulfill the promise of 2017 school funding reform that’s yet to be met.

In Kankakee, on the other hand, federal dollars primarily funded a new field house — a one-time cost that, unlike adding staff, doesn’t complicate the district’s post-ESSER budget. But capital investments don’t necessarily help student academics rebound.

Roza predicts that for many districts, balancing post-ESSER budgets will be difficult. After two years of an unprecedented cash infusion, the plummeting of schools’ funds is complicated by inflation. And the change in resources will be felt more acutely in high-poverty districts, where federal emergency relief funds were concentrated, and in districts with declining enrollment, she said.

In many cases, tough choices involving labor costs lie ahead, Roza said. “Some districts gave out big pay raises that they’re going to have trouble affording when the money disappears. They may have hired people and they’re always reluctant to do layoffs,” she said. “Ultimately, something’s got to give.”

Statewide, the Tribune’s analysis of ISBE data shows nearly 350 local education agencies, which include districts, regional education offices, lab schools and other education entities, devoted the majority of at least one of three ESSER grants to employee salaries and benefits.

On average in Illinois, a third of funds spent have been devoted to supplies and materials; 22% each to capital projects and labor; and another 20% has been spent on purchased services, which Roza said can entail anything from school psychologists to plumbers.

Funds disbursed in the initial two grant periods have already expired and, as of Dec. 7, nearly 150 local education agencies had also fully spent their ESSER III funds, according to the data. With its last and largest of the relief grants, the federal government stipulated school districts must commit all funds by September and devote at least 20% to addressing learning loss through interventions that “respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups,” according to ISBE.

But, by and large, ESSER legislation allows districts to define spending priorities themselves, Roza said.

Capital investments to keep kids in school

In central Illinois, the rural Williamsfield school district used the opportunity to break from the norm, investing its remaining 80% of ESSER III funds to expand bus routes and electrify its fleet. According to Superintendent Tim Farquer, the investment meets multiple bottom lines — helping to ensure vulnerable students have access to in-person learning and clean air, while saving the district money and addressing climate change impacts that have seen local families left without power for hours, amid more frequent and intense storms.

Mitigating respiratory illnesses that keep kids out of school was already a top goal before the pandemic, Farquer said. “Pre-COVID, our number of kids who were asthmatic was steadily on the rise,” he said.

Asthma is the leading cause of health-related school absences, causing 1 in 2 Illinois students to miss at least a day of school, the Illinois Department of Public Health wrote in its 2015-2020 Asthma State Plan.

“We all recognize that in-person learning is the best option and we want kids to be in here working, interacting with their teachers, as much as possible,” Farquer said of the need to eliminate absences.

With the onset of the pandemic, mounting numbers of students had to be quarantined as a result of contact on buses, Farquer said.

“Typically, that mode of transportation is utilized by our most vulnerable population already. Statistically, a lot of those students are already behind and then, many of them were experiencing exclusions from in-person learning that other students who ride back-and-forth to school with a parent, were not experiencing,” he said. “It was increasing the gap, resulting in what I would refer to as inequitable learning loss to a portion of our population that’s already more vulnerable.”

After adding a bus route and electrifying the fleet, “Kids are spaced out on the buses, for a shorter period of time and none of our drivers or students will be breathing in diesel particulate matter,” Farquer said of the district’s primary goal in transitioning from diesel to electric.

“No. 2 is just being responsible stewards of our environment, doing our part to try to lower emissions,” he said. With a separate federal grant, through the Department of Energy, Williamsfield has also transformed its “bus barn” into a microgrid that not only charges its fleet but also produces and stores solar energy.

“We are a school district that’s experienced firsthand the nature of weather patterns associated with climate change,” Farquer said of recurring power outages. “For us to not take any action internally to lower our emissions, and just sit back and complain about the results that we are experiencing of the changing climate just seemed disingenuous.”

That stance has also translated to savings, Farquer said. In fuel costs alone, the district has eliminated about $6,000 per bus per year, he said.

Among efforts to directly address learning loss, Williamsfield expanded social work and speech pathology services. “We tried to do so with folks, very openly and communicatively, in any position, that there could very well be a sunset coming,” Farquer said of the looming expiration of ESSER funds. Federal dollars funded an extra day of counseling per week, which has since come to an end, and increased speech pathology costs, to which local funding has been committed.

Williamsfield’s small student-to-teacher ratios also gave it an advantage in helping the district’s approximately 300 students catch up on some of the learning loss resulting from the pandemic, Farquer said.

“With our size and resources, we’re able to, I think, find those gaps quicker. Logically, we’d like to think we’d be able to close those gaps sooner,” he said.

But, like many districts, Williamsfield hasn’t seen test scores fully rebound. “We’re not back to where we were,” Farquer said.

In Kankakee, Board of Education President Christopher Bohlen said he wishes the district devoted more time to discussing potential uses of ESSER funds to support student achievement. Approximately 60 miles south of Chicago, Kankakee is one of about 160 local education agencies that spent more than half of at least one of its ESSER grants on facilities acquisition and construction, according to the Tribune’s analysis of ISBE data.

Bohlen said he’d have liked to propose that investments include a finite period of intensive tutoring and the installation of AC in every school. Bohlen said cooling could have eliminated the cancellations of one to five days of classes due to extreme heat in the fall, while also making it feasible to offer summer or year-round schooling as a means to catch up on learning loss.

“If the community thinks that’s the way it wants to go, (ESSER) would have been the chance to eliminate the impediment to that concept,” Bohlen said of additional schooling possibilities. But, “unless some other windfall arrives on our front door,” he added, “within our budget that’s not going to happen.”

In a 2022 vote first reported by the Daily Journal, the Kankakee Board of Ed, with Bohlen alone dissenting, approved using the majority of the district’s ESSER III funds to construct a $26 million field house. According to publicly released renderings, the construction project includes a 200-meter track, four basketball courts, bleachers, boys and girls locker rooms, multipurpose spaces and a small day care facility.

“My concern was that our metrics, our scores were not good before the pandemic and we could see they weren’t going to be good after the pandemic, in part because of attendance — students weren’t coming to school. And everybody was severely affected by the pandemic, in their emotional being — students, parents and staff,” Bohlen said regarding his opposition to the field house.

“I would have preferred the priority being there,” he said of student achievement.

“But 6-1 is a pretty big landslide,” Bohlen said of the vote approving the field house. “And I’ve come to accept it.”

Given the condensed timeline to use ESSER funds, there was a push in the district to make a quick decision, Bohlen said.

Nationally, the funding of sports construction projects with ESSER dollars has raised scrutiny. But without tighter guardrails on expenditures, construction projects with a tenuous connection to academics don’t necessarily cross a line, Roza said.

“It’s very easy for people to say there’s connection (to learning loss) and then come up with a justification that allows them to spend money on something they wanted to spend the money on already,” she said. “If they don’t really care about reading and math, and they care about sports, then the Congress gave them the authority to decide what they wanted to do.”

Math skills, in particular, are a predictor of opportunities — from a student’s acceptance to college, to their ability to enter fields requiring not only advanced math skills, such as engineering, but also basic math proficiency, such as business and nursing, she added.

Social-emotional learning

The impact of the pandemic was “blatant” in Bronzeville Classical elementary students’ 2021 Illinois Assessment of Readiness reading and math scores, said Spicer, the CPS principal.

“As a selective enrollment school, you expect that all students will be proficient or exceeding the standards. And that’s not what we saw,” she said.

School leaders remain under pressure to improve student achievement, but Spicer said in CPS, there’s a growing understanding that supporting staff members and students’ wellness is key.

“The academics will come. But we have to make sure that there is a culture for learning,” she said. “That is what we have to invest in right now.”

Returning to in-person learning was rocky for many students, Keepers said. “They weren’t as comfortable, or used to interacting with other people, or sitting in a classroom, being in the room with the actual teacher. ... We had several students who were having emotional breakdowns,” she said, praising the addition of a counselor and “extra manpower” to provide support to students.

Previously, “I don’t think we’ve ever had the autonomy to prioritize things other than the academics. That has been the driving force year after year after year: ‘Look at the test scores; look at the data.’ But now, there is beginning to be this shift, focusing on students’ well-being and staff well-being,” Keepers said.

Spicer said of educators, “If you’re not well, the children are not going to grow, they’re not going to be taken care of, they’re not going to learn.”

And, while kids are resilient, Spicer said, “They’re not going to be OK if they’re not being kind to each other. They’re not going to be OK if they can’t hear the lesson.”

For DeKalb Community Unit School District 428, ESSER funds provided the opportunity to implement “Caring School Community” social-emotional learning curricula that all elementary students spend 30 minutes on every day. “How to recognize emotions, how to navigate conflict, how to socialize appropriately with peers, with adults,” Kyle Gerdes, director of student services, said of the concepts covered.

“It’s designed to try to create a classroom environment and a school environment that really values the importance of community — knowing that not everybody’s just like you, so let’s learn about each other, let’s embrace the diversity and what makes us different, and also what connects us,” he said.

Having a sense of community makes a difference when disruptive behavior comes up in the classroom, Gerdes said. “We can sit down and say, hey, our agreed expectations were that we’re all going to listen to each other in the classroom when our peers have something to say, and that we would respond in a respectful way. We didn’t meet that expectation. Let’s talk about that. Let’s figure out how we can move forward as a group next time,” he said.

The district has also implemented social-emotional curriculum in its middle and high schools and expanded school-based mental health staff with ESSER funds to fortify what’s known as a multitiered system of support. It’s a system in which all students have access to baseline social-emotional support and further interventions are available based on individual students’ needs.

“When we asked for the positions, one of the things that I really wanted to get across is, ‘We will have good outcomes for kids,’” Gerdes said of academics. “But right now our kids can’t access the support that they need. By adding these positions we’re able to give our kids access to the school-based mental health clinicians when they need it. We have a better capacity to respond when students are emotionally escalated and require crisis de-escalation. We have the staff to be able to address those things more frequently now. It not only helped us with being able to support, with therapy, but also just to be responsive to kids in the moment when they’re struggling. So it doesn’t turn into something that is an office referral or exclusionary discipline.”

It’s not surprising that many students are struggling, he said.

“Millions of people passed away during the pandemic. If you think about grief and how most people had somebody impacted in a negative way, that’s not an easy thing to rebound from,” Gerdes said. “The more that we can connect with kids on a relationship and emotional level and make them feel like they’re valued, they want to come to school every day, that gets them to where they’re ready to engage in the instruction that is going to help them close gaps.”

DeKalb’s Business and Finance Director Armir Doka said the district was proactive in preparing for the impending financial cliff. “We do not enter into programs that we know we will not have budgets for after ESSER,” he said.

To ensure the sustainability of positions added to support student attendance and behavioral and social-emotional health, Doka said the district used ESSER funds to cover temporary costs, such as supplies, freeing up funds in DeKalb’s multiyear budget that will be used to support new full-time positions long term.

“It wasn’t meant to be a permanent solution,” Doka, a former principal consultant for ISBE, said of ESSER. “It was meant to be a jump-start for a sustainable program.”

State funding falls short of promised reform

After decades of lacking investment, ESSER money gave CPS “a fighting chance” to show what’s possible when resources are made available to meet students’ needs, district CEO Pedro Martinez said at a fall event celebrating a graduation rate increase last school year.

But even with federal aid, scores of CPS students’ needs have remained unmet, according to educators and parents who participated in a CPS budget roundtable at Roberto Clemente Community Academy in November.

Community members welcomed an increase in the ranks of English language teachers, academic interventionists and counselors at each school. But many positions were added only part-time amid an ongoing influx of newcomer migrant students. And bus service was cut for thousands of students attending schools outside their neighborhoods. Many working families have complained about the lack of transportation at the budget roundtable — and at every Board of Education meeting since the start of the school year.

“We did get funds for the number of students above the projected enrollment,” said Nicole Abreu, a parent of three Jahn School of Fine Arts elementary students, including two diverse learners, and a former Local School Council member.

“But that doesn’t account for the fact that the vast majority of those kids that are up and above enrollment are kids in temporary housing, coming from very traumatic experiences, coming from countries where they’re not used to the climate, they don’t speak the language,” Abreu said of the need for additional social workers and English language instructors.

“Kids are here now and we’ve got to service their needs now,” Abreu said.

At Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village, the need for another counselor is so dire that Principal Virginia Hiltz likened it to “drowning” during a small group discussion on CPS budget gaps and priorities. District data shows one case manager serves more than 850 Saucedo students, of whom the vast majority, 83%, are economically disadvantaged. One-fifth are diverse learners and 46% are English learners.

For districts serving a large number of students with high resource needs, the promise of 2017 state funding reform remains unmet. That year, the Illinois legislature signed into law a change to its funding formula, known as “evidence-based funding,” committing to provide each district an amount of state aid based on the needs, rather than sheer number, of their students.

As a result, state funding owed to CPS and other high-poverty districts increased — on paper — dramatically. But the state is far from meeting a nonbinding 2027 deadline to provide districts full funding, as Illinois legislators have allocated only modest increases in aid actually provided.

CPS, for example, currently receives only a quarter of the aid that the state determines it needs, resulting in a $1.4 billion gap, Illinois State Board of Education data shows.

With federal funding soon to plummet, CPS officials have said they’re advocating for increased aid from the city and state. “We want to make sure we can find the additional revenue needed to meet the need that we have in our schools,” Chief Budget Officer Michael Sitkowski said at the budget roundtable.

After applying the remainder of federal funds to a $691 million structural deficit, Sitkowski said, “That still leaves an extra $390 million that we’ll need to either find additional revenues for — or be able to reduce expenses to balance the budget.”

CPS isn’t alone in seeking increased state funds. Among three public hearings on the 2025 budget, the State Board of Education has received a total of $1.7 billion in requests for increased funding, primarily to sustain programs launched with ESSER funds, ISBE’s Chief Financial Officer Matt Seaton said at the agency’s December board meeting.

But state funding for schools is projected to increase only by $425 million next year, according to ISBE records. At its next meeting Jan. 24, ISBE is expected to vote on a budget recommendation to send to Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Additional funds could be appropriated when the Illinois legislature deliberates the budget this spring. But rather than grow, Seaton said at ISBE’s November meeting, “with other state pressures, whether that be pension payments or what have you, it would be our anticipation that the budgets are going to start to restrict a little bit.”

CPS is grappling with how it can continue to “make good” on the new resources it provided to students after the federal money is gone, Sitkowski said at the budget roundtable.

“The investments that we’ve made are both necessary and really important to our schools and to our students,” he said. “We don’t want to have to cut our way out of this.”