color photograph of four elementary school students gathered at the white board. They point to the board as they discuss a math problem
TUSKEGEE, AL - MARCH 14: Sixth grade students work on math problems together on March 14, 2023, at Tuskegee Public School in Tuskegee, Alabama. (Photo by Julie Bennett for The Washington Post via Getty Images).

Government resources are drying up, vaccine mandates and COVID-19 protocols are being lifted, and students and educators say they feel they’re being left behind.
This three-part series takes a closer look at how teachers, students, and parents are coping with fear and uncertainty as government priorities shift.

Elementary and middle schools that have relied on emergency relief funding throughout the pandemic could soon see those funds dry up. 

Money granted by the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Act (ESSER) gave schools across the country a chance to meet the needs of students, parents, teachers, and administrators during a time of strife and uncertainty. 

ESSER funds arrived two weeks into the pandemic in three installments totaling nearly $190.5 billion. Congress set aside $13.5 billion of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money for ESSER in March 2020. Schools received an additional $54.3 billion when Congress authorized the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act in December 2020. In 2021, schools received the largest round of funding yet, known as ESSER III, when the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) gave $122 billion to public and charter schools to “address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Nation’s students.” 

Schools are on a tight deadline for ESSER III spending, which was distributed to every state. The funds expire in September 2024, and teachers and administrators are feeling pressure to spend responsibly as conversations about the impact of pandemic learning on teachers, parents, and students reveal a range of socioeconomic divides. 

Nearly every state that received ESSER III funding has been explicit about making students’ social and emotional well-being a priority. One 2021 Pew study showed that the pandemic wreaked havoc on kids’ mental health, leading to higher than average rates of anxiety and depression, a problem that spilled over into hallways and classrooms when schools returned to in-person. 

Adriana Publico is the ESSER Project Manager at Washoe County School District in Nevada. Her district received more than $121 million in ESSER funding, a significant portion of which was allocated for hiring mental health professionals, social workers, and counselors in the schools. But despite these resources, her optimism that students will fully emotionally recover before ESSER III funds expire is waning. 

“We don’t see any federal funding on the horizon,” she said. “And we’re just talking about academics. The social and emotional side I think is going to take even longer because literally everybody’s lived through multiple layers of trauma.” 

When it comes to academics, Publico says Spanish-speaking students, Black students, Indigenous students, and other students of color, who altogether make up 57.5% of the school’s student population, have fallen very far behind. The district focused heavily on getting more adults into buildings to work directly with students on their individualized needs. They also expanded online learning programs, adding four new distance learning options to their catalog of software for kids struggling in reading and math. 

Without ESSER funding, Washoe County School District may have to say goodbye to those programs. 

“We’ve got to get students prepared for the futures that they want in our state. And, honestly, for the first time, in my experience here, I think we [legislators, superintendents, school board members] are aligned on all levels to put more funding toward education,” Publico said. 

In North Carolina, schools are already saying goodbye to ESSER-funded programs. Chatham County Schools announced in February the closure of the fully remote learning option made available to elementary and middle schoolers during the pandemic, citing “budgetary changes” as one reason the school was unsustainable.

The school was established using ESSER funds that will expire in June 2024. During a public information session for the 2021-22 school year, Assistant Superintendent for Academic Services and Instructional Support Amanda Hartness stated that Chatham County Schools had made a “three-year commitment” to the virtual academy. Now, just two years in, they are calling it quits. 

The remote learning option was a perfect accommodation for students like Carrie Campbell’s son, Ethan. A rare form of epilepsy makes in-person learning risky for Ethan, so Campbell was relieved after enrolling him in Chatham County Virtual K-8 Academy in 2021. And, for the first time, Ethan formed close connections with his teachers and classmates, and his reading improved, Campbell said. 

“I was really disappointed that they would make such a major decision to close down my child’s school,” she said. So, she emailed the superintendent with pleas to keep the academy open, but administrators insist that the money just isn’t there.

Campbell scrambled to find other remote learning options for Ethan. Next year, he will start over at North Carolina Cyber Academy with all new teachers and classmates. 

Campbell isn’t the only parent frustrated by the impending loss of funding. 

Veronica Quetero is a mother and advocate with three children enrolled at schools in Texas’ largest school district, Houston Independent School District (HISD). 

HISD received nearly $1.2 billion in ESSER money, and Quetero hopes some of it will go to Benavidez Elementary School. 

Before the pandemic, the school lacked basic infrastructure, she said.

“Our children didn’t have working toilets. They didn’t have running water or, in some cases, they had a little bit too much running water, so toilets would overflow,” Quetero said. “There was trash everywhere.” 

Like many public schools, Benavidez Elementary is severely understaffed, she said, and the pandemic exacerbated this. 

When ESSER funds arrived, Quetero had all kinds of ideas for how to spend the money. She fought for affordable after-school enrichment opportunities for children with special needs after hearing that ESSER funds could be used to expand extracurricular programs before and after school. 

Quetero and other parents also urged the school’s board of trustees to address clean-up and staffing, but with certain parameters about how the money can be spent they saw little improvement. 

With help from Latinos for Education, a nonprofit working to amplify the voices of Latinx students, families, and educators, they saw some progress. HISD agreed to allocate ESSER funding for parent liaisons on every campus throughout the district, opening a line of communication between Spanish-speaking parents and school administrators that didn’t exist before. When ESSER runs out, it’s unclear whether these liaisons will remain in the schools. 

Quetero works closely with the liaison at Benavidez Elementary. Together, they’re coordinating a graduation ceremony for the fifth graders.  

“These kids are the pandemic children that lost those two-to-three years, and they’ve been through a lot of changes,” she said. “They deserve something nice.”

Makaelah is a writer for Facing South, an online magazine published by the Institute for Southern Studies. She is the institute's 2022 Julian Bond Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter for the Watauga...