School systems used the influx of emergency federal stimulus aid to make ambitious investments in hardware, internet connectivity, and other tech needs during the pandemic, but most also experienced challenges in making the most of those funds, according to a new federal report.
The U.S. Department of Education’s watchdog arm recently released a report based on a survey of roughly 300 public school districts and charter schools, looking into how they spent that money and hurdles they encountered.
For many districts, the three rounds of stimulus, totaling roughly $190 billion, rolled out in response to the pandemic represented a massive infusion of dollars at a critical moment.
Those funds have helped in areas such as bulk device purchases, teacher training, intensive tutoring, and support for students’ well-being — priorities that have gained new importance during the pandemic.
School districts are required to have obligated, or committed to spending the stimulus aid by September of 2024.
According to the report from the department’s office of inspector general, the vast majority of school districts and 92 percent of districts surveyed used money to buy ed tech-related products for remote learning, ranging from hardware to software to connectivity tools.
- 93 percent of school districts used stimulus money specifically to buy hardware like desktop computers, laptops and tablets
- 74 percent of districts used stimulus money for internet connectivity
- 63 percent purchased software, including instructional, administrative, and cybersecurity programs
- 38 percent bought “other ed-tech products and services,” a category that comprises service protection plans, insurance, training and hiring of vendors or staff.
Staffing Challenges — and the Fiscal Cliff
Mobile hotspots were the most frequently purchased connectivity tool, and training for students, teachers, and parents was reported as the most common type of other product or service purchased by school districts using stimulus money.
More than half of the districts that responded to the survey — 57 percent — said they faced challenges when making ed-tech purchases with federal emergency aid. Those challenges ranged from a shortage of laptops and tablets and excessive shipping delays, supply chain disruptions, and “delays related to federal policies.”
The survey that the report is based on also asked districts what they anticipated in terms of future challenges. And the answer is not surprising: The upcoming fiscal cliff.
Moving forward, school districts most frequently cited sustaining ongoing costs to stimulus-funded programs once that money is gone as a future challenge, according to the report. Included in that are also concerns, according to the report, about “hiring or retaining sufficient staff to manage ESSER-funded technology and training to enable teachers to effectively use the technology during instruction.”
About 66 percent of districts surveyed for the report are projected to face challenges involving sustaining programs and other costs once the stimulus program ends. An even larger number of districts — some 80 percent — said they expect to face ongoing challenges related to ed-tech products and services purchased with stimulus funds.
Tough decisions are on the horizon for many districts about what stimulus-funded programs to keep and which to get rid of.
An EdWeek Market Brief nationally representative survey, conducted online by the EdWeek Research Center in January and February 2023 of 296 district administrators and 284 school leaders, found that the two most likely stimulus-funded products to be cut are COVID-era purchases: cleaning supplies (38 percent) and HVAC/Ventilation systems (31 percent).
But classroom-focused products could also be in store for cuts. Some that ranked high on the list included: summer learning programs (30 percent), computing devices, such as Chromebooks (29 percent), and tutoring (26 percent).
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