How will COVID-19 relief money for Pittsburgh schools be spent?

PITTSBURGH — Fourteen months ago, schools were forced to find a way to educate students virtually with barely any notice.

The pandemic proved to be a struggle for students and teachers statewide.

“The first two weeks of the pandemic we didn’t have enough devices for students. We had 2,500 devices for 6,500 kids,” remembered Butler Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian White.

During that period, the district began broadcasting lessons over AM radio to reach its students.

Those drastic steps aren’t necessary at this point.

But the massive disruption in learning caused by the pandemic is expected to have long-term consequences.

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It’s a problem lawmakers hope the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden will help address.

This summer, Pennsylvania schools will begin receiving an additional $5 billion to help students.

While 20% of that money must be set aside to address learning loss through summer programs or additional support, districts have flexibility in how the rest of the money is spent.

White said Butler plans on closing its middle school and building an additional facility onto the high school to house those students.

The project is expected to cost between $8 million and $12 million.

“It is directly helping students. If we hire teachers for three years and then we have to let them go because we can’t afford it, we have not made a sustainable change that’s actually going to help students,” White said.

Pittsburgh Public Schools is still deciding how it will spend $122 million the district is expecting to receive from the COVID-19 relief package.

During a public hearing in April, administrators and state leaders discussed several possibilities, including investing in new classroom technology and adding mental health resources.

PPS Chief Academics Officer Minika Jenkins expects learning loss will be an issue educators deal with for years to come.

“This is not something we can fix and address those needs in the course of a summer. We have to make sure we focus on long-term goals,” she said.

But some like the Commonwealth Foundation see billions of taxpayer dollars going to Pennsylvania school districts as the wrong approach.

The Harrisburg-based conservative think tank released a study in March showing most school districts statewide are doing well financially, concluding that the money would be better spent going directly to families.

“Based on the best information available, there’s no reason to believe that schools do not have enough funds to weather the pandemic challenges,” said Elizabeth Stelle, the Commonwealth Foundation’s director of policy analysis.

But White, the Butler superintendent, believes that conclusion doesn’t look at the whole picture.

Countless businesses have closed permanently due to the pandemic.

That’s tax revenue school districts may never see again.

“Forever, that revenue is gone. Somehow, we have to make up for that and we have to make up for the expectations that weren’t fulfilled over the last year.”