How has more than $1.5 billion in federal Covid relief money changed Oregon schools?

Jared Cordon, the school superintendent in Roseburg in southern Oregon, cannot afford to pay for new heating, cooling and ventilation systems in the bulk of his district’s 12 schools, some of which are nearly 100 years old. 

Despite receiving $19 million in federal Covid relief funding since 2020, Cordon learned early on that the money would be spent quickly, face competing interests and come with plenty of strings attached. 

“Trust me, I’m grateful for this money,” Cordon said, “but it doesn’t solve the ongoing issues we’re having.” 

After the bulk of it went to technology for distance learning, and then operational costs to get schools staffed for the return to in-person learning, there wasn’t much left for the HVAC systems. When he tried to get a bond passed to pay for the HVAC upgrades this spring, voters balked.

“They said, ‘You have money. You don’t need to ask me for money. Why do you need a bond when you have all this money?’” he recalled.

It’s one of many unintended consequences of a historic federal investment in schools during the pandemic with which school superintendents are grappling. 

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Education gave states $190.5 billion during 2020 and 2021 to help schools with distance learning, then the return to school, then to combat learning loss. The money came in three separate rounds, and Oregon has so far received nearly $1.7 billion. 

In districts across the state, most of the money has so far gone to paying for staff, many of them substitutes and short-term hires, as well as technology and capital projects to help upgrade schools to improve safety and sanitation.

It’s a big chunk of money in a relatively short amount of time. What we weren’t going to do was provide a level of support for students that then all the sudden goes away.

– Tricia Mooney, Hermiston superintendentSchools say the benefits have been immediate – and temporary. Many won’t be able to keep staff members they’ve hired when the federal money expires in September of 2024. Most no longer use the WiFi hotspots they spent tens of thousands of dollars a month on early in the pandemic. Few students use the online learning platforms and software today, and the Chromebooks that went out will have to be replaced in a couple of years. 

Looking back on his district’s share so far, Cordon said he has mixed feelings.

“Has it hurt us in any way in the long run? I don’t know yet,” he said.

On Friday he had to let students and staff out of school early as temperatures rose and classrooms got too hot. 

Hermiston Superintendent Tricia Mooney said it was challenging at times to figure out the best uses for the federal funding. 

“It’s a big chunk of money in a relatively short amount of time,” she said. “What we weren’t going to do was provide a level of support for students that then all the sudden goes away.”

Kevin Bogatin, superintendent in North Bend on the coast, said the money “allowed us to maintain staff and begin addressing the immediate impacts of the pandemic, but there is a lot of work to do to regain lost ground.” 

An historic investment

Oregon school districts have so far spent about one-third of the federal Covid relief money available to them. This leaves more than $1 billion still on the table to be spent in the next two years. As districts navigate where to invest the rest of their share, the Capital Chronicle reached out to ask superintendents how schools have changed because of the money, what they’ve learned about spending it so far and what the legacy of the historic federal investment might look like years from now.

Most said it helped schools remain stable during a time of upheaval, and as they navigated staff shortages and as enrollment numbers dropped. Most said it helped them to hire staff critical to helping students make up for lost learning and for mental and emotional support staff like counselors and school nurses. Others were afraid to use the money on new staff, fearful they’d have to lay people off in one or two years when the money expired.

Warrenton Hammond Schools’ Superintendent Tom Rogozinski said he took measured risks when it came to investing in any new employees or personnel in his district on the northwest coast.

“I felt that was the most ethical thing to do,” he said, “So 2024, 25 aren’t a bloodbath for us.”

 Some districts spent the federal Covid money on technology. (Fred Joe/Salem Reporter)

Two rounds of funding

The first round of federal funding came down in March of 2020. Oregon got $121 million to help pay for a quick shift to distance learning that involved getting kids hotspots, laptops, new software and tons of protective and cleaning equipment for schools. Nearly all of that money has been spent by almost every district in the state, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education. 

The second round came in December of 2020. Oregon received nearly $500 million to get schools back open. This included helping schools with operational costs like hiring more custodial staff, getting air purifiers and capital projects like building more classrooms so students could maintain safe distances. The third and largest round came in March of 2021: More than $1 billion to get kids back in school and caught up in learning, with more tutoring programs, teaching staff, summer school and social and emotional support staff. 

State education department data of district-by-district expenditures shows the bulk of the money so far has been spent on temporary staff salaries and bonuses, technology and capital projects. 

Delaying staff losses

In Hermiston, La Grande and Parkrose in Portland, student enrollment has declined since the pandemic. Federal Covid money allowed them to hang on to teachers longer and cut fewer positions, according to the superintendents for each district. But losses were inevitable. 

George Mendoza, superintendent of  La Grande Public Schools, was able to maintain staffing levels during the last two years with federal Covid money. This year he finally had to make cuts, he said, because the district is down more than 200 students since the spring of 2020. 

Parkrose Superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao said that despite using $1 million from the Covid relief money to maintain staffing levels in the face of enrollment losses, he had to cut four teaching positions at the elementary level.

“That amounts to about nine teaching positions we saved with the relief money,” he said in an email.

But because the funds expire, “we face a cliff in 2024,” he continued. “If we don’t see an increase in enrollment, we will have to increase class size and our state school fund won’t be able to sustain our current staffing level.” 

Hiring substitutes 

Lopes Serrao said his district’s money went mostly to technology, meals and HVAC upgrades. 

“We have not added programs or permanent staff because this is one-time money and we can’t sustain it past 2024,” he said.

Instead, schools focused on hiring more substitute teachers, including six roving subs who could work across schools. 

“And we were still short,” he said. “We have purchased mental health services, but these are temporary contracts.” 

In Umatilla, superintendent Heidi Sipe said her district focused on stabilizing the teacher workforce with the money, including hiring more subs than permanent teaching staff, like Lopes Serrao. 

She also invested in “grow your own programs” that help get subs and auxiliary staff into teaching programs to become fully licensed.

Learning loss

At least 20% of federal Covid dollars awarded in the third round of funding that arrived in March 2021 had to be spent on helping students make up for credits or lessons they missed out on during remote learning when schools were closed for in-person classes. More than $54 million has been spent on this recovery statewide so far.

“Without these funds, our district, like many others around the nation, would have struggled to maintain basic operations while supporting student needs,” Sylvia McDaniel, director of communications and community relations at Salem-Keizer Public Schools, said in an email. The district was able to provide some grades with smaller class sizes and some schools with more mental and emotional support staff and tutoring programs.

In Hermiston, Mooney said they created a “7 to 7” program for elementary students this summer, providing them with classes and activities along with breakfast, lunch and dinner from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nearly half of all elementary school kids in the district, about 1,000 kids, took advantage of the program. 

“We are in an agricultural community and farmers are working long days,” she said. “We wanted to be able to provide kids a structured environment.”

 Some Oregon schools federal Covid dollars on much-needed improvements. (Courtesy of Vernonia School District)

Capital projects 

In the Klamath County School District, Superintendent Glen Szymoniak said that beyond using the money for technology and distance learning, the district invested heavily in capital projects like ventilation, new floors and two turf fields and three gyms. Szymoniak was adamant to not hire staff that he could not pay for years down the line.

“We did use (Covid) funds to contract services for unfinished learning and recreational activities,” he said, but, “hiring people would cause us to lay them off when the funds expire.”

Kate McLaughlin, superintendent of schools in the South Umpqua School District, described the money as “a tremendous help during a very challenging time.”

In her district, the money will have a lasting physical legacy in the form of a new multipurpose building for middle schoolers on the current middle school campus. Construction began in August and should be done by February. It will include a kitchen, cafeteria, and band room. Current and former middle schoolers have had to cross a street multiple times a day to access those facilities at the neighboring elementary school before, causing traffic concerns. 

In North Bend on the Oregon Coast, the local school district was able to buy six portable classrooms for elementary students in order to reduce class sizes in the school. 

“In the future the district would like to begin offering pre-K options and these additional spaces will help with meeting that need,” Bogatin, the superintendent, wrote over email. His district was unable to pass a bond last year that would have helped to pay for updated HVAC systems in school buildings, so Bogatin said he will plan to do what he can with the remaining federal Covid dollars he has left to spend. 

Besides more classrooms, Bogatin said it’s too early to tell if the federal Covid relief money will result in measurable long-term outcomes.

“Covid and online learning had a short and long-term impact on student achievement that we will be working to overcome for many years,” he said.

 A teacher works with students at Hallman Elementary School in Salem (Fred Joe/Salem Reporter)

Problem maintaining positions

Many of the schools looking to sustain funding for positions and programs they added with the temporary federal money will need to levy local taxpayers or rely on the state Legislature to help keep them.

In Beaverton, 65% of federal Covid relief dollars have gone to hiring staff and will continue to go to hiring staff, “primarily to support the social and emotional well-being of our students during the pandemic and as we transition out of the pandemic,” Mike Schofield, associate superintendent for business services, said in an email.

This includes hiring social workers, student success coaches and nurses.

But, Schofield knows, funding for those positions will decline in the years ahead. 

“Maintaining these and other positions in the district will depend on funding from the legislature,” he said. 

Rogozinski, the superintendent in Warrenton Hammond, said that the federal Covid money looks like a lot to some, but he fears legislators will see it as a way to fill a growing gap in state education funding vs. what schools need. He cited a report from the state Education Quality Commission released in August that estimates the funding required to operate “a system of highly-effective schools” in Oregon would need about $2.7 billion more than it currently receives.

“It could be seen as: schools got what they needed,” he said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.