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Teachers get raises, bonuses from federal COVID relief funds meant to reopen schools safely

NEA guidance issued in June outlined how unions could claim entitlement to increased teacher compensation from federal COVID-19 emergency relief funding and school cost savings realized during the pandemic. 

Published: December 18, 2021 4:58pm

Updated: December 18, 2021 10:57pm

This week's Golden Horseshoe once again goes to the U.S. Department of Education for allowing school districts to use pandemic relief funds for pay raises and bonuses for teachers despite the funds being appropriated to reopen schools safely. 

Schools nationwide received $190 billion through three relief packages passed. Of that total, the largest sum, $122 billion, was from President Biden's American Rescue Plan. 

The federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds were ostensibly meant to reopen schools safely amid the pandemic and return students to in-person instruction. Millions, however, were used for COVID-19 bonuses, teacher pay raises, even to cover payroll, Just The News found.

Teachers, who are public employees, continued receiving their normal pay despite school closures while teaching remotely. 

Connecticut, which was awarded over $1.6 billion in ESSER funding, spent $21.1 million on "personal services-salaries" and $2.6 million on employee benefits, the state website shows.

Detroit Public Schools used $60 million of its pandemic relief funds to give out COVID-19 bonuses, school documents show. 

"Salary increases will be one-time bonuses funded through COVID funding," the Detroit Public Schools Community District report showed.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers signed a school reopening letter of agreement with DPSCD that detailed the "COVID-19 supplement of $500 each quarter" for union members.

"DFT bargaining unit members who mainly or entirely perform their job duties in-person, face-to-face, for the 2021-22 academic year shall receive a COVID-19 supplement of $500 for each quarterly marking period that they complete through June 30, 2022," the union agreement with DPSCD stated. 

In addition, teachers who provide blended or virtual teaching will receive a total of $2,000 in COVID-19 bonus payments through the end of June 2022.

Despite COVID-19 posing little risk to those under 18, teachers unions pushed back against reopening schools and prolonged virtual learning, resulting in learning loss for students, with minority students disproportionately affected.

"The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest," McKinsey & Co. reported. "In math, students in majority Black schools ended the year with six months of unfinished learning, students in low-income schools with seven."

The National Education Association, the largest union in the U.S., pushed for ESSER funds to be used for teacher pay in a document titled "The ESSER Funds: Bargaining and Advocacy Guidance for Safe and Equitable Schools."

Issued in June, the guidance outlined how unions could use ESSER funds for teacher pay and benefits in their contract negotiations for the 2021-22 school year, arguing that teachers should claim for themselves shares of federal emergency relief funding and school cost savings realized during the pandemic. 

"Many local affiliates are negotiating contracts now," the guidance reported. "Despite the influx of ARP ESSER funds as well as reduced expenditures from the 2020-21 school year, many school districts are still claiming tight budgets, citing the ARP ESSER funds as 'one-time' or 'short-term" funds. Even if they are not claiming inability to pay, school districts have not invested sufficiently in educator pay and benefits and school infrastructure."

The union went on to say, "the funding can be used to correct long-standing inequities, including staffing and other resources…"

One Texas school district decided to use its relief funds to give teachers a 3% pay raise and an additional $2,500 in retention stipends. The Gregory-Portland ISD announced it will invest $1.5 million for pay increases this year and nearly $1.9 million for retention stipends from the district's federal ESSER funds.

Wichita Falls Independent School District in Texas, which received approximately $48.2 million in federal relief, is considering stipends for fully vaccinated staff members and five COVID days for staff who missed school days due to quarantine or infection, reported the Times Record

Two North Carolina school districts have also opted to spend ESSER funds on teacher bonuses. Davidson County Schools approved a $4,500 bonus for full-time employees and a $2,250 bonus for part-time employees, reported The Dispatch. Bonuses were also paid to bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers. The Lexington City Schools Board of Education also approved a $1,000 retention bonus for all staff and took the money from their general fund, which will be reimbursed by ESSER funds.

Just this week, a school superintendent in Vermont apologized for using pandemic funds to give $2,000 payments to all district employees without school board approval, the Caledonian Record reported.

JTN also found many schools are using ESSER funds to hire grant personnel to navigate and oversee their ESSER spending. They include the Oklahoma Department of Education, the Beaumont ISD in Texas; Birmingham City Schools in Alabama; Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee; Phoenix Elementary School District 1 in Arizona; and Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina.

Neither the Department of Education nor the National Education Association has responded to a request for comment on this article.

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