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Large share of federal COVID relief for safe school reopening diverted to non-pandemic uses: report

Estimated 40%-65% of funds to protect teachers, students, from virus go to new tracks, tennis courts, stadium expansion, and, security cameras.

Published: December 10, 2021 1:09pm

Updated: December 12, 2021 4:31am

This week's Golden Horseshoe Award goes to the U.S. Department of Education for approving pandemic relief spending plans by school districts that include millions for upgrading athletic facilities, installing security cameras, purchasing floor shiners and other non-pandemic related projects.

Approximately $190 billion in pandemic funding under both the Trump and Biden administrations was allocated to schools to safely reopen and protect teachers and students.

The public spending watchdog group Open the Books found widespread misspending of pandemic relief funds by schools.

Creston, Iowa, for example, expanded their sports stadium and spent $231,000 to add bleachers. In Kentucky, a track was replaced using relief funds, the watchdog found.

The Kentucky project used $1 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds for the track replacement.

"It's a big problem when Congress is throwing so much money at school districts they can't even hardly spend it," Open the Books CEO and Founder Adam Andrzejewski told The National Desk.

Boston schools also upgraded athletic fields and expanded other facilities. The city's ESSER spending included $4 million for athletics expansion, $5.5 million in library services expansion, $3 million for science lab materials and equipment, and an additional $20 million for facilities improvements.

Erwin, Tenn., is also considering spending millions in ESSER funds to upgrade its athletic fields. The Unicoi County School Board recently met with local officials to discuss the funding of the projects, reported the Johnson City Press.

The school is looking to fund a new $3.6 million gymnasium, a new $1.5 million track, and $575,000 for new tennis courts courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.

The education site Chalkbeat found the Newark, N.J. public school system's plans for pandemic relief funds include $6 million in new athletic fields and gym floors; $2.4 million for the installation of security cameras; and $536,000 for floor-polishing machines. 

"Newark's schools chief has called the federal windfall a chance to make much-needed district improvements and urged community members to 'not stay stuck on COVID-19' as they dreamed up ways to use the money," Chalkbeat reported.

State education departments received billions in funds through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March 2020, which provided $13.2 billion; The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, passed in December 2020, which provided $53.3 billion; and President Biden's American Rescue Plan, enacted in March 2021, which provided $122 billion to schools to reopen safely amid the pandemic. 

According to a report by the American Enterprise Institute, ESSER funds were billed as support for school reopenings and pandemic recovery, but "Congress placed few limits on what ESSER funding can be used for." 

The report found initial estimates "suggest that $78 billion–$123 billion could go toward spending not directly related to COVID-19."

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