It is “frustrating” to see schools close in 2022 due to coronavirus outbreaks, the White House coordinator for the COVID relief fund told Spectrum News on Thursday, despite billions of dollars allocated to schools for in-person learning
American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling said school districts have the flexibility to spend funds how they see fit, but the core purpose of the relief legislation was to fund emergency needs that will keep schools and states operating through the pandemic.
The American Rescue Plan allotted $122 billion to schools, and state education agencies had to submit detailed plans about how they would spend it.
“It's frustrating,” Sperling said of schools closing this month. “You always have to be a little careful of sitting in Washington, D.C., and, you know, pretending you know the circumstances in each school district better than they do.”
But, he explained, “a huge justification for giving those large funds was that people would do everything possible to keep schools safe and open.”
“You've seen frustration from the president about that,” added Sperling, who also served as director of the National Economic Council under former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
More than 7,000 schools moved away from in-person instruction last week due to the infectious omicron variant, according to a Burbio tracker, though that number dropped to a little more than 3,400 this week and has been steadily declining.
But the Biden administration has made clear that they believe schools should be open.
“All that money's there, billions of dollars made available. It's there,” President Joe Biden said in a press conference on Wednesday. “Not every school district has used it as well as it should be. But it's there.”
Sperling emphasized that schools know their needs best, but some might be using the funds for programs that aren’t as urgent.
“I don't think you ever really see schools or places sitting on money or not using it,” he told Spectrum News. “But sometimes they might be using it for something that's important but isn't as COVID related, or much of a COVID emergency. That's at the heart of this bill.”
The COVID relief coordinator also said any extra funds should go to learning loss and programs to help students gain back the instruction missed by remote learning.
“[The president’s] view is he wants you to use those resources to keep schools safe and open and to use extra funding to deal with learning loss that children suffered through the COVID shutdowns and the periods of Zoom and remote learning,” Sperling said.