Caroline Johns, the superintendent of Northgate School District, saw a presentation about a new behavioral support program back in 2019.

The program, called The Chill Project, is run by The Allegheny Health Network, and is premised on the idea that early life traumas can lead to long-term chronic health problems. So intervening early, in schools, can help improve health outcomes in adults.

Johns was excited. But Northgate didn’t have the money for the program. Then, after the pandemic struck, Congress passed three rounds of funding to help school districts across the country recover. That amounted to $190 billion of support, the largest single federal infusion into schools ever, including more than $420 million for public schools in Allegheny County. Some districts have begun reporting challenges in spending some of the money as they struggle to hire additional staff.

With that new funding, Johns committed $800,000 to the Chill Project over four years. It was the largest commitment of relief dollars of any district in the county to additional mental health resources from the first two rounds of funding despite Northgate being one of the smallest districts. Now each of the four schools in the district has its own full-time behavior specialist and its own licensed clinician.

The behavior specialists teach lessons on mindfulness, stress reduction and emotional regulation in a special “Chill Room” where kids can drop in. The number of kids receiving counseling has increased from 20 or 30 before the pandemic to 60 or 70 now, Johns said.

Like many districts, Northgate saw mental health challenges when students returned to school after a long hiatus. But it hasn’t persisted, Johns said. “We’ve seen that really settle down. And I would attribute that to the supports we put in place.”

This is the kind of outcome that lawmakers had in mind when they passed the additional funding for schools: help students recover from additional challenges posed by the pandemic. The choices Johns and other district leaders across Allegheny County are making with their COVID relief funds could have a big impact on students and the future of the region. Education researchers estimate that the learning loss during the pandemic could cost the country more than $3 trillion in lost productivity over the next three decades if nothing is done to catch students up.

While districts have set distinct priorities, there are some common themes. Most districts have been spending the early funds on some combination of laptops and iPads for students and teachers, extra learning over the summer and after school, additional staff and repairs to HVAC equipment. The next few years could be a massive experiment in the effectiveness of additional funding if some districts are able to recover more quickly than others.

Johns said she thinks some districts may not do as well if they don’t invest in professional health staff.

“A lot of districts are trying to put in social-emotional learning and teachers are having to pick that up,” she said. “That’s admirable, but having trained professionals right on site is the more optimal way to go.”

The chill room at Bellevue Elementary School, where students come for behavior lessons or help calming down. (Photos by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

A breakdown of Allegheny County COVID relief spending

Some early reports suggested school districts across the country were wasting the relief money on things like athletic fields. But an analysis of thousands of districts by FutureEd has shown that the money is largely being spent on the kinds of things it was intended for: teachers, after school and summer remediation and HVAC improvements.

This is also true in Allegheny County. 

PublicSource has compiled the proposed budgets for COVID relief funds among the 43 school districts in Allegheny County, which included 1,100 different line item proposals.

We found one instance where a district proposed spending money on its athletic facilities: Bethel Park School District budgeted more than $850,000, part of which was set aside for a gym floor replacement. Bethel Park’s finance manager, Douglas McCausland, responded to an initial inquiry about how the district spent its money and mentioned some of the typical expenses other districts are spending money on, such as technology and HVAC. But McCausland didn’t respond to an email asking about the gym floors.

PublicSource’s analysis includes the first two rounds of relief funding for all 43 public school districts in Allegheny County, totalling about $160 million. The plans for the third round of COVIDrelief funding have not been approved by the state and published on its website.

Some highlights of the first two rounds of spending across Allegheny County include:

  • $42 million budgeted for staff salaries and benefits 
  • More than $28 million on tablets and laptops
  • $15 million on fixing or replacing HVAC systems
  • $12 million on summer school salaries and costs, half of which is being spent by Pittsburgh 
  • More than $4 million on social workers, psychologists and therapists, and $2 million for nurses

The last and biggest round, about $262 million, will be focused more on learning loss and mental health issues. Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS], for example, has budgeted $13 million for new instructional materials and $5 million for additional tutoring. 

James Fogarty, the executive director for A+, sat on an advisory committee of administrators, parents, teachers, students and parents who debated how to spend the final $100 million. Fogarty wanted to put more money at the discretion of individual school principals and said he thinks the district probably allocated too much for instructional materials. But he was happy that the district put more than $5 million toward community partnerships and $5 million toward tutoring.

“We wanted transparency and we got transparency,” Fogarty said.

Low income first

The relief funds are targeted toward districts with low-income and disadvantaged students. That means PPS, which serves a majority of low-income students, received a large share. PPS enrolls about 15% of the students in Allegheny County but is receiving 37% of the total COVID relief dollars.

PPS budgeted $33.7 million to retain staffing at its current levels. PPS has been running multimillion dollar budget deficits the past few years, and the school board is using a third of its final round of relief money to reduce the deficit rather than make cuts or close schools.

Ebony Pugh, a PPS spokesperson, declined to make anyone available for an interview until after the state approves the district’s plan for spending the third round of relief funding on March 24.

Districts in financial distress, including Penn Hills, Sto-Rox and Duquesne City, also included significant federal relief funding to retain staff. Sue Mariani, the superintendent of Duquesne, said without that funding, class sizes would’ve had to increase “dramatically” from around 21 students up to 29.  She said the district will likely have to raise taxes after the federal money runs out.

“We are going to have to do something to maintain, unless we can get students back from charters and cyber charters,” she said.

Kate Kohney, a behavioral health therapist at Northgate High School says she sees 32 students per week and has a waitlist of another 20 students. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)
Kate Kohney, left, a behavioral health therapist at Northgate High School says she sees 32 students per week and has a waitlist of another 20 students. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Why are they spending so much on air conditioning?

HVAC expenditures are one of the ways districts are encouraged to spend their money, because the increased ventilation can reduce COVID-19 transmission. For Penn Hills, HVAC repairs were already a pressing issue: The district has had to cancel classes for students at times because of heating and cooling problems.

This spending is typical of districts like Penn Hills that serve a large number of low-income students, according to Phyllis Jordan, the associate director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. She did a large-scale analysis of COVID relief spending across the country and found that HVAC repairs were the No. 1 priority of districts with the highest poverty levels. Typically, low-income districts don’t spend as much on capital projects, Jordan said. 

“So they’re not only spending this because they can, they’re spending it because they need to,” she said.

Penn Hills’ delay in HVAC upgrades was caused, in part, by a dispute on its board about which vendor to hire. But districts across the country are having trouble spending their COVID relief money fast enough as they struggle to hire the additional staff they budgeted for. Penn Hills was able to hire eight reading specialists but has struggled to fill its paraprofessional and school nurse positions, according to Superintendent Nancy Hines.

Gateway School District spent two-thirds of its first two rounds of funding on a new HVAC system at its middle school and is now installing HVAC at its two elementary schools. Part of the reason districts like Gateway are investing in HVAC is because of the way the funding is structured: The money goes away after two years. 

Krissy Rohr, behavioral health school educator at Northgate High School, stands in front of a student painting in the chill room as students walk by in the hallway. (Photos by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

Any new staff a district hires might have to be laid off when the money runs out. But the HVAC improvements will last. William Short, the superintendent of Gateway, said you have to be careful with federal funds, “especially when talking about funds that are one and done.”

Johns, the Northgate superintendent, said she hopes to keep the Chill Project at Northgate schools after the funding runs out and hopes to apply for new grants to pay for it. 

Carlynton School District also has invested in health staff from The Chill Project, and its superintendent, John Kreider, said the investment is partly paying for itself: Some students that previously had to be referred to outside specialists have not had the same issues because of early interventions from the Chill project and the district was able to cancel some of its other contracts. 

Kreider said the relief money not only has helped the district recover, but also “puts ourselves into a better position than going into the pandemic.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...