COLUMBIA — South Carolina public school leaders have until June to figure out how they're going to spend billions in federal COVID aid to make up for learning lost amid the pandemic.
Congress' biggest windfall to the state's K-12 districts, $1.9 billion approved in March, can't fully be distributed until the districts have their plans cemented.
Broken down, each district's share of the latest spending package ranges from $2.7 million for rural McCormick County to $163.1 million allotted to Charleston County.
Greenville County — the state's largest district — is a close second at $162.8 million, according to the state Department of Education. The calculations, released April 30, are based on districts' student numbers and poverty rates.
Districts will get two-thirds of their share May 24. The rest is dependent on state and federal approval of their intentions for the money.
Under federal rules, at least 20 percent must be spent on catching students up academically.
That requires a quick turnaround by June of long-range strategies. Districts have until September 2023 to spend the federal money.
State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman has asked for plans that help students in three pandemic levels — those doing relatively well, students who are a couple of months behind and those who are "really going to need tough remedial work," her spokesman, Ryan Brown, said.
"The kids furthest behind were probably behind before the pandemic," he told The Post and Courier on May 3. "They won’t go to summer camp and suddenly be good to go."
The $1.9 billion provided in Congress' latest spending package is in addition to $846.4 million in federal aid allocated to South Carolina districts last December and $194.7 million sent from Congress' initial pandemic aid package in March 2020.
A year later, districts have spent 56 percent of that first-round aid. How much more has been obligated but not yet paid for is unclear, Brown said.
Plans are still coming in for the second round; 35 of the state's 79 traditional districts haven't submitted any. Only 24 applications have been approved, Brown said.
Spearman's agency has no say over the details of how the money's spent locally, as long as school boards follow the federal laws' broad parameters. Allowed expenses include online connections, renovations, improving indoor air quality and however they decide to address learning loss.
But Spearman intends to incentivize what "we think will give the most bang for the buck," Brown said. "We can't tell them what to do, but if they do what we think they should, we'll give them more money."
That includes summer learning that goes beyond normal summer camps, one-on-one tutoring, and year-long programs before and after normal school hours. The incentives will come from the state agency's $327 million share of the three federal aid packages.
Greenville County has already started paying for tutoring — before, during and after-school hours — and expects to spend $7.5 million of the federal aid this year on summer learning. In all, the district has committed about $58 million, or 23 percent of its total allocations, according to a district breakdown.
Much of the public focus has been on elementary students faring poorly in online learning. And a big chunk of what Greenville County has committed so far is for elementary intervention. But a lot of high school students didn't do well either, said district spokesman Tim Waller.
"We've had large numbers of high school students turn in Fs throughout this calendar year," he said.
"People think of summer school as one or two schools offering courses for a handful of students who didn't do so well. This summer, summer school is going to be a different animal," he continued. "Almost all of our schools will be open, welcoming in students from all geographic parts of Greenville County to help them make up their grades."