Building changes, extra staffing: How suburban schools are spending final COVID grant funds

Like many suburban school districts, Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 officials used a hefty chunk of the final round of federal COVID-relief grant funds to upgrade ventilation systems in schools.

"The HVAC upgrades were one piece, but it was huge at $6.2 million, and that freed up money for us to invest in school safety and security," said Ron O'Connor, the district's assistant superintendent for business. "We were able to purchase new windows for many of our facilities, and that money might not have been there if not for these federal grants."

All told, 288 school districts in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties were allocated more than $1.3 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grants through the American Rescue Plan Act. This was the third and final round of the grants distributed to schools throughout the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, those suburban districts have spent 41% - more than $540 million - of the allocated funds, according to Illinois State Board of Education records. They have until January 2025 to spend the remainder.

ISBE records show suburban school districts have spent almost a third of the grant funds on capital projects, including HVAC upgrades and other air quality renovations, amounting to nearly $176 million so far.

Unlike the previous rounds of COVID-related grant funding, districts have greater discretion with spending these dollars, though at least 20% have to be earmarked for combating "learning loss" caused by remote learning practices put in place at the height of the pandemic.

Officials from several school districts said they had hoped to bring in more personnel to help with one-on-one learning or for small groups, but like all sectors of the educational career landscape, there is a shortage.

"The job market is currently very competitive, and (we) had initially planned to hire a larger number of tutors," said Anthony McGinn, spokesman for Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300. "However, D300 has successfully met the 20% spending requirement for addressing learning loss without encountering any challenges," he said.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said limitations placed on spending by federal officials can be positive and negative.

"It's a good thing if the money is being set aside for a special purpose; it ensures the investment is being made for that special purpose," he said. "But at the same time, when it comes to disaster relief, it's difficult for the federal government to know what the biggest priority is at the local level."

This round of grants is roughly 64% of all COVID-related emergency funding Illinois schools received from the federal government, ISBE records show.

Salaries for additional staffing brought in to assist with learning loss is the next largest grant expenditure among suburban districts, with more than $135 million being spent.

That covers more than 25% of all grant dollars spent to date.

Nearly $25.3 million covered additional employee benefits incurred by hiring or additional duties. That's about 4.7% of all grant funds spent.

Libertyville-Vernon Hills High School District 128 added social-emotional learning interventionists, who do work similar to social workers, as well as two part-time math interventionists with some of the grant money received in this round.

"The learning loss isn't just at the elementary schools; it's been pretty consistent across all grades," said Dan Stanley, District 128's assistant superintendent for finance. "We had seniors who graduated last spring who basically didn't have half their high school experience."

Suburban districts have spent another $130 million combined on purchased services, which can include staff training. That was 24.2% of all spending so far.

Another $62.3 million has been spent on supplies and materials, according to ISBE records.

More than $10.4 million was spent on equipment and other purchases.

Each school district has to submit an approved expenditure plan for the grant funds, which is available at ISBE's "learning renewal" website at

"As long as we're able to tie the spending into COVID relief, it was approved," said Diana McCluskey, chief business official at Palatine Township Elementary District 15. "We had some proposals rejected and had to go back and reapply to get some spending approved."

The funding level is based on each district's student population and the percentage of low-income students. Larger school districts received millions of dollars, while smaller districts got a few hundred thousand.

"One of the nice things about this is that we were able to move up some projects that would have had to wait maybe three to five years without these grant funds," said John Benedetti, assistant superintendent for business services at Carol Stream Elementary District 93. "It kind of leapfrogged some things and cleared up money we can spend on other needs now."

Statewide, more than $4.5 billion in federal money was allocated to the 851 school districts across Illinois in this round of funding via the American Rescue Plan Act. All three Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding rounds combined have delivered more than $7 billion to Illinois schools, according to ISBE records.

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