Ray Carter | January 27, 2022

$1.4 billion in Oklahoma school COVID funds remain unspent

Ray Carter

Since 2020, Congress has approved three rounds of federal COVID-bailout funding, providing more than $2 billion combined to Oklahoma school districts to mitigate viral spread, address challenges created by the pandemic, and reverse learning loss tied to COVID shutdowns.

But more than 70 percent of that money remains unspent today, according to figures presented to state lawmakers during a budget hearing for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

The news that schools still have roughly $1.4 billion available to address COVID challenges became public even as many school districts have closed for in-person learning in recent weeks, citing challenges associated with COVID.

The remaining federal COVID funds are equivalent to nearly half the typical state appropriation provided to schools each year and are in addition to those state funds.

Three rounds of federal COVID-bailout funding have been provided to states since spring 2020. Oklahoma school districts received $144.8 million from the first round, $598.5 million from the second round, and $1.34 billion from the third round. Those three rounds of COVID-bailout funds generated a combined total of more than $2 billion in extra funding for Oklahoma school districts.

The federal money was meant to pay for COVID-related expenses, ranging from the cost of mitigating COVID spread in schools, to paying substitute teachers higher wages to maintain service during outbreaks, to funding programs to help reverse COVID learning loss.

When asked how much of that federal COVID money remains unspent, Oklahoma State Department of Education officials told members of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee that school districts have yet to spend the entirety of any round of bailout funding, including the first round provided in spring 2020.

So far, Oklahoma schools have expended $141 million from the first round of federal bailout funding, $350 million from the second, and $82 million from the third round.

Overall, that means schools have spent about $573 million combined from the three rounds of COVID-bailout funding, or just 28.7 percent of the total available to them. The roughly $1.4 billion in remaining funds can be drawn down at any time over the next few years. Under the federal bailout programs, schools spend money on COVID measures and are then reimbursed with federal funds.

Some school officials have butted heads with Gov. Kevin Stitt in recent weeks over the governor’s efforts to keep schools open for in-person learning. Earlier this month, Stitt announced he had signed an executive order allowing state employees to serve as substitute teachers without losing their state pay for that day.

“We’ve made it clear that schools need to be open for in-person learning,” Stitt said. “Oklahoma students deserve that option of being in-person, in class with their teachers.”

Some school officials criticized efforts to increase the supply of substitute teachers and suggested a lack of COVID mitigation was to blame for school closures, even though schools have more than $1 billion in unspent COVID funds available to address those challenges.

Rick Cobb, superintendent of the Mid-Del School District, announced his district was suspending classes from Jan. 13 to 17. On Jan. 23, in response to a Twitter question asking what his district has done “to ensure students have the opportunity to have face to face instruction this year,” Cobb responded, “Duct tape and baling wire.”

He did not address how much federal COVID money the district has spent or how much of that money remains available to the Mid-Del district.

Cobb also tweeted, “The things that would have kept people safe and in school have been politicized, stupidly.”

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who recently switched parties and is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to challenge Stitt in this year’s election, tweeted on Jan. 11, “Schools need to be open and school leaders are doing everything in their power to make that happen.”

On Jan. 18, she responded to Stitt’s effort to boost the number of substitutes with a statement declaring that “with the stroke of a pen, the governor could untie the hands of schools to mitigate spread” but provided no specifics on how schools are currently prevented from mitigating COVID spread.

As with Cobb, Hofmeister did not reference the unspent federal COVID funds that remain available to school districts dealing with COVID.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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