Federal ESSER money only allows poor schools to play catch-up

Kids are wrapped up in their sweaters at Sibley Elementary in south suburban Calumet City on a recent morning. They’re told not to sit too close to the windows or they’ll get hit with a chilly draft. After all, the windows are the same ones from when the building was built in the 1950s. And the warm weather will bring a new set of issues for this school, as well as the others in the Dolton school district. “Three of [seven buildings] will not have air conditioning this year because the equipment completely broke down,” said Jay Cunneen, financial consultant for Dolton District 149 and the former superintendent. “We ran it so long and hard to try to give fresh air to our students.” Dolton is one of Illinois’ chronically underfunded school districts, which means it must make difficult spending decisions at every turn. For years, the district said no to improvements that were not absolutely essential, such as replacing aging windows or installing a modern HVAC system. The pandemic prompted the injection of federal COVID-19 relief money — which has allowed districts across the state, including Dolton, to finally begin to catch up. Dolton plans to spend about $12 million of the $20 million it is receiving in federal money on desperately-needed new windows and HVAC upgrades. All told, Illinois received $7.9 billion in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants for pandemic-related issues like health and safety, social and emotional learning and addressing learning loss. Low-income districts are receiving considerably more than wealthier communities. Districts, well-resourced and not, are prioritizing spending on teachers and counselors, in addition to spending on COVID-related equipment. But then plans start to diverge. For districts with the most low-income students, ESSER lets them spend on things needed before COVID hit as long as the investment is tied to responding to the pandemic, such as improving air quality. This flexibility is a boon for…

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