Pittsburgh Public Schools got $170 million in pandemic relief money: What are they doing with it?

PITTSBURGH — As the new school year gets underway, districts around the state are flush with pandemic relief money from the federal government.

Pennsylvania got nearly $8 billion from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan to distribute to school districts in the state. Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) got the second-largest amount, with nearly $170 million, behind only Philadelphia.

Channel 11′s Angie Moreschi is digging into how exactly the districts are spending all that money, which district leaders call a game changer.

Addressing Learning Loss

Getting back to school post-COVID has not been easy, but the major cash infusion in pandemic relief funding from the federal government is giving districts the opportunity to make improvements that otherwise would not have been possible.

A major goal for the money now is to help address learning loss during the pandemic.

“First of all, we are equipping our schools to be able to make tutoring available to break students into small groups and really focus on what support students need,” said Errika Fearbry-Jones, chief of staff to PPS Superintendent Dr. Wayne Walters.

For example, what used to be a storage room at Arsenal Middle School is now transformed into a special after-school tutoring room, with staffing made possible by the pandemic relief money.

“In the past, we could only partner with organizations that could do it for free. We didn’t have the money to pay for tutoring,” said Pattie Camper, principal at PPS Arsenal Middle School.

Camper says tutoring is needed now more than ever, because the year and a half that students spent out of class due to COVID-19 left them with a major deficit in skills and knowledge.

“We felt it the most last fall. When students first came back, the deficits were a little bit shocking,” she said.

Learning loss due to the pandemic is such a major concern nationwide that districts are required to use a portion of the money, called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money, to address the problem.

PA got nearly $8 Billion

There have been three distributions of the money appropriated through the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, which were passed by Congress:

  • ESSER I in May 2020, for emergency funds to help schools respond to COVID-19.
  • ESSER II in January 2021, which were additional emergency funds to help schools respond to COVID-19.
  • ESSER III (ARP) in March 2021, to support the long-term work of education recovery.

Pennsylvania got a combined total of $7.74 million from the federal government. School districts in the state were required to apply for the funds and come up with detailed plans for how they would use the money. At least 20% of the third allotment is required to address learning loss.

Finding out how much YOUR district got

Click here to find out how much your school district got in ESSER funding. Then, click on each link for ESSER I, ESSER II, and ESSER III (APR) and search for the name of your school district to find the amount allocated for each distribution. Add up all three amounts to get the total amount your district got. Then, to find out how your district is using the money, go to your district website. They are required by the state to post information on how they plan to use the money.

Click here to see our 11 Investigates report on how Butler Area Schools is spending its money.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education tells Channel 11 it is working on an easier way for parents and citizens to find out how much money each district got and what it is being used for, but it has not yet completed the relevant webpages.

$170 million for PPS

Pittsburgh Public Schools got $11.1 million for ESSER I, $50.1 million for ESSER II, and the largest amount, $107.2 million, for ESSER III.

It used the three allotments for a variety of projects over the past two years.

“One of the things we’ve had problems with, in the past, is not having our devices for the first day of school,” Principal Camper said.

The ESSER money took care of that problem. PPS purchased laptops for every single student in the district.

“We were able to do a lot of good,” Fearbry-Jones said. “That’s everything from new materials for new strategies, from tutoring for students, but also looking at the whole child, making sure we are able to support them with emotional/social support.”

PPS also used the money to upgrade infrastructure in older buildings for better Wi-Fi access and ventilation, and used it to pay the salaries of employees to prevent major layoffs during COVID-19.

“We were able to make sure we were able to keep teachers in place to service our students,” Fearbry-Jones said. “The district is in a deficit. We’re deficit spending, pulling from our savings account. So, what ESSER allows you to do is fill in some of those holes.”

Students not coming back

With all the resources now available, getting students to come back to actually use them is another major challenge. PPS, like many districts, found that after COVID-19, a surprising number of students didn’t return. For many who did, regular attendance was an issue.

“We absolutely saw that we had some attendance challenges, last year. Even though we were enrolled fully, we only had about 60% on a daily average that came to school,” Camper said.

To tackle that issue, the district used some of its pandemic relief money to pay teachers and other staff to conduct special outreach over the summer. They went into neighborhoods to find out why so many students weren’t coming back.

“We went into the community and really knocked on doors of families to be able to see what they needed. What were some of their concerns, what supports they needed to come back to school and start fresh,” Fearbry-Jones said.

That’s leading the district to focus, not just on academics, but also on social and emotional support, with things like more after-school programs.

“Boxing and soccer, STEAM projects, robotics and swimming,” Camper said, describing some of the programs they’ve put in place. “We wanted to detach kids from their laptops that they had spent a year-and-a-half on and get them back to being kids.”

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