Pre-Kindergarten students at Love Memorial Elementary in Lincolnton wear masks Sept. 23 as they make applesauce. Photo courtesy of Lincoln County Schools.

After officials at Halifax County Schools found themselves with a massive infusion of emergency federal cash meant to soften the blow of COVID-19, they settled on a likely target — replacing air handlers that had been in operation for nearly half a century.

Halifax County Schools’ project to replace HVAC systems would also add air conditioning to two Halifax high school gyms, turning the largest rooms on campus into potential classroom space. The problem is finding someone to do the job.

The county’s $25.5 million allotment of federal COVID-19 funding is part of several pots that add up $5.5 billion for school systems across the state, a total that amounts to the largest one-time boost to K-12 funding in state history.

Schools across the state have so far spent about $1.1 billion of their allotted relief money, or about 20% of the total. School officials initially spent much of it on personal protective equipment, extra cleaning, employee bonuses, student laptops and other remote learning expenses. Now many are considering long-term projects.

Data from the Department of Public Instruction shows that North Carolina school districts vary widely in how much they've spent. Halifax is the lowest at about 10%, and the highest-ranked systems are just under 40%.

In some places, projects have been slowed by supply chain issues, and staffing crunches have officials in some districts considering pay increases, according to a district-by-district survey conducted by the NC Watchdog Reporting Network, a partnership of newsrooms across the state.

Halifax County Schools had to bid its HVAC projects out for a second time because not enough vendors responded in the first round, according to Tony Alston, Halifax’s head of maintenance.

That lack of competition has “always been a problem” in rural areas, Alston said. Now the global supply chain is kinked, and schools around the country have big pots of money and a lot of similar plans.

“Certainly, this just compounds it with so many of these projects going on around the state,” Alston said.

Much of this cash can be spent well into 2024, and officials in many districts hope to see long-term impacts beyond COVID-19.

“We can now dream bigger,” said Gregory Monroe, head of human resources and operations for Halifax County Schools.

“Not only the spread of COVID, but what we were dealing with prior to COVID,” Monroe said. “It gives us some opportunity to make up some lost ground.”

But Monroe and other school administrators, as well as state officials, said they expect spending to shift into a higher gear soon — so much so that inflation and competition for contractors may become more of a factor.

The Watchdog Network asked system officials around North Carolina whether state and federal spending rules delayed projects. Those who responded said no, but they frequently mentioned supply issues.

For example, Wake County Schools Chief Business Officer Dave Netter said the system wanted to make more moves this fall on outdoor options.

“We can’t find a supplier that can give us more than 15 tents at a time,” he said last month.

Alleghany County Schools spokesman Steve Hall said his system wants to replace all 250 desktop computers in its four schools.

“The companies don’t have them in stock,” he said.

Ventilation spending planned

Schools say spending on ventilation projects will ramp up considerably, with some HVAC projects planned over the Christmas break and others waiting until summer, when school buildings are largely empty.

But for many systems, it was not a priority in the run-up to this year’s fall semester.

The ABC Science Collaborative at Duke University, created specifically to look at COVID-19 issues in schools, neither recommends nor advises against putting air purifiers in classrooms. The group cites a lack of research showing purifiers would have significant benefits in addition to mask-wearing.

As for the efficacy of other ventilation improvements, “changes to ventilation inside the school building have not been thoroughly evaluated,” the collaborative said in a statement. But if schools move away from mask mandates, “ventilation might be helpful, but expectations should be managed,” the statement said.

Other organizations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency, recommend ventilation or filtration improvements as part of a layered approach that also includes masks.

Many school systems responded to the Watchdog Network survey saying they’ve upgraded filters in their HVAC systems, moving to higher-rated versions that capture more particles. But they typically have not used the more expensive HEPA filters, which the CDC says “are no less than 99.97% efficient at capturing human-generated viral particles associated with (COVID-19).”

Other systems said they haven’t spent money on ventilation improvements at all but noted that schools, like office buildings, have much higher air-exchange rates than homes if properly maintained — a key metric for air quality.

Most of the ventilation projects that school systems have planned are longer-term affairs, such as upgrading HVAC units rather than buying portable air purifiers. In a statewide needs survey released this year, North Carolina school districts reported $693.6 million in HVAC renovation needs, the biggest line item in a $12.8 billion catalog of upgrades.

Durham Public Schools told the NC Watchdog Reporting Network that the district spent more than $2 million in emergency COVID funding on air-filter upgrades and other HVAC work. The system has close to $148 million left, and a spokesperson said the district has plans to spend $44.3 million on indoor air quality and student health needs.

Some parents and PTAs frustrated with the pace have turned to online fundraisers to raise money for classroom air purifiers, tents and picnic tables to move school lunch outside. Parents at Lakewood Elementary in Durham raised more than $12,000 and bought more than two dozen purifiers.

Delaney Susi, a Lakewood parent who helped organize the fundraising, said she had no idea the school system was sitting on so much money or that it was specifically earmarked for COVID response.

“I'm hoping that whoever has authority over how to use those funds will talk to the folks on the ground — parents and organized groups like PTA and principals, and school staff to find out what schools need because each school really knows what their community needs,” Susi said.

‘People sitting on the money'

Despite the wide disparity in spending rates across North Carolina’s public school systems, which overall have 80% of the money left, state officials seem satisfied with the progress — at least for now.

Applications for some pots of money weren’t due until the end of September, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

The head of Gov. Roy Cooper’s pandemic recovery office, Lee Lilley, said things vary by district. But on the whole, he said, systems have done well, given the challenges they’ve faced.

“They’ve invested historically large sums of federal COVID-relief sums in vital PPE, cleaning, online learning materials, student nutrition and other immediate needs,” Lilley said in a statement. “As those needs are met, districts are shifting to longer-term investments, like ventilation, which take more time to contract and spend, and addressing student learning needs.”

The legislature has oversight as well. A state House-Senate commission scheduled its first meeting on the state’s federal COVID spending this week, and a meeting in coming weeks will focus on school spending.

Local officials said they’ve switched from a crisis footing to thinking more strategically about this money.

State Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, who is also an education consultant, said much of the money will ultimately be used to address learning losses from the pandemic.

And assessing that, he said, takes time.

“At the end of this school year we’ll have a much better idea of which kids bounced back and which ones didn’t,” Meyer said.

Meyer also said teachers and administrators are stressed. While spending money may solve problems, spending it on new education efforts also creates work.

“I think a lot of what’s going on is people sitting on the money,” he said. “School districts have to think strategically … because it does demand staff time and energy. And this year there is so much that is new and challenging.”

Some systems are contemplating another round of salary boosts to deal with bus driver shortages, teacher burnout and other workforce problems.

Wake County, for example, plans to use some of its remaining $300 million on employee bonuses. Like schools nationwide, the district has seen disruptive staffing shortages that are worse for the lowest-paid workers. The state budget is also now four months overdue, with no guarantee the Democratic governor and Republican legislative majority will strike a deal on educator raises.

Bonuses for retention and recruitment are permitted uses under the stimulus money. But however the money gets used, the last of it must be spent by September 2024.

Despite the largest federal stimulus schools have ever seen, school leaders across the state are pushing the General Assembly to boost recurring funding.

A long-running lawsuit has the potential to force them to do so, and it may soon come to a head.

Right now, it takes about $14 billion a year to run schools across the state. As large as the stimulus is, spread over some 4 1/2, it’s less than 10% of normal K-12 spending in the state.

Monroe, Halifax’s head of human resources and operations, said he’d love to raise salaries or hire more people with the COVID money. But if you can’t sustain that after the money goes away, the people go away.

“Which goes back to the question you asked: Why are we barking about needing the money?” he said. “An infusion of funds will never take care of all the things that we have had to delay down the road. And that’s just the nature of the beast for us.”

This story was jointly reported and edited by Kate Martin and Frank Taylor of Wmforo; Sara Coello of The Charlotte Observer; Tyler Dukes of The News & Observer; Cathy Clabby of The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner and David Hodges of WBTV; Michael Praats of WECT; Travis Fain, Ali Ingersoll and Emily Walkenhorst of WRAL; and Jason deBruyn and Liz Schlemmer of WUNC.

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The NC Watchdog Reporting Network is a cooperative effort of investigative journalists representing seven news organizations across North Carolina. Participants include Wmforo, the Charlotte Observer, the News and Observer, WBTV, WECT, WRAL and WUNC. Email CPP's news team at [email protected] to contact the NC Watchdog Reporting Network.