What happened to the money schools received for pandemic relief?

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- For 20 years, April Lee has worked as a teacher in Johnston County. This school year is the toughest yet.

"I think everybody thought that this year was going to be a lot easier, and it has been more challenging even than last year," explained Lee, the Four Oaks Middle School teacher. "Last year we felt like we were juggling about 15 different balls in the air at the same time, but this year, it's a whole lot; it's more."

With students back in the classroom, a lot more needs are evident. One of the biggest focuses in combatting learning loss created by the pandemic.

"We've always had kids come to us at varying places in their learning, but this year, it just seems like they're really a lot more all over the place," Lee said. "We're having to fill in holes. Like I said, there's a lot of pressure for us to like make all these gains in testing."

Learning loss is a top focus of educators across the nation and a big reason why lawmakers allocated $190 billion to districts across the country.

North Carolina schools received close to $6 billion from the federal government since the pandemic began. Eighty percent of this money has not been spent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. The funds come with certain restrictions and districts have until 2024 to spend some of the money. However, the billions are sitting unspent as schools and students face ongoing needs.

A top need causing the most strain is staffing.

"I think the school boards are wary of using funds to increase pay for any positions or to create positions that require funding because they are not recurring funds," Lee said.

Lee feels the impact of the growing staff shortages as she sacrificed her planning period to teach a math class.

Data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction reveals districts have spent 14%, around $200 million, of the money so far on teacher bonuses. However, what teachers like Lee are pushing for is raises.

"We've got to make gains for our people that are reoccurring, that stick around that make an impact on how we live now but also on how we are going to live once we retire," Lee said.

Some districts have allocated funding for additional positions. Wake County's plans for the money include hiring instructional support technicians and health service technicians.

Chatham County Schools used the funds to add multiple additional positions including social workers, nurses, counselors and instructional assistants.

In Durham County, the district chose to fund around 140 two-year positions to temporarily assist across the district.

In Wake, Durham and Cumberland counties, school systems each have more than 70% of their federal funds still available. While these districts haven't spent all their money, they do have plans on how to help it make a long-term impact.

"There will still be ongoing needs for a while so we've tried to budget those funds so that we have a continual plan to meet those needs," explained Clyde Locklear, the associate superintendent of business operations with Cumberland County Schools.

Locklear said some of the money dedicated to facility improvement projects will take longer to spend due to the design and construction process.

"There will continue to be needs, maybe not as drastic as we're seeing now with the pandemic, but the services that we are providing are not new items that have come about again, as a district we're evaluating our needs and our schools trying to utilize our funds in the most efficient way," said Locklear.

Durham County Schools used a majority of the first round of funding on technology support, including devices, software and internet connection.

Many districts also adding and expanding mental health services for students.

Technological expenses accounted for around 20% of the money that districts across the state have spent already. Across districts, PPE, facility improvement projects and retention incentives appeared as common planned expenses.

Even with billions still unspent, many education advocates believe the money is only a temporary fix.

"The funding is temporary, right? So, to really address all of these problems, we have to go back to the legislature and get recurring funds. And the school districts won't be able to do it on their own. They don't have the tax base and things like that across the state. We really need to look to our legislature to address the problem," said Heather Koons, the communication director for Public Schools First North Carolina.
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