SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico education officials have started to spend about $1.5 in pandemic relief aid set aside for them by the federal government.
Around 4% or $60 million of the anticipated windfall to school districts has actually been spent, as officials begin to file for reimbursements for the added costs of the pandemic, according to a legislative report released Thursday.
School districts bought thousands of laptops and tablets for students across the state, with more purchases expected to replace devices damaged by continuous use at home over months of remote learning. About 76% of the spending documented so far went to computers, WiFi hot spots, and safety and cleaning supplies, the Legislative Finance Committee report estimates.
Another 18% went to staff salaries and benefits. Schools also offered hazard pay to frontline workers such as bus drivers who delivered meals and homework assignments directly to students’ homes.
A total of $1.5 billion in federal funding has been set aside for schools in New Mexico, with around 9.5% going to the Public Education Department and the rest going directly to school districts.
The first of three rounds of federal funding, which is comparatively small, must be spent by fall of 2022, while the most recent one totaling around $900 million doesn’t have to be allocated until 2024.
“We want to make sure that all of this money goes toward impactful uses for schools and students as they emerge from the pandemic and that the money does not revert," said Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart in a statement Thursday.
The department will also “escalate attention” to any districts “lagging their peers" in spending the federal funds as part of a detailed tracking system, Stewart said.
He said the top spending categories for the department's portion of the funds were air filtration upgrades and an online learning platform made available to school districts.
“Federal funding, you know, that’s a huge one and let me tell you we are planning and we have spent a lot of dollars,” said acting Las Cruces Public Schools superintendent Ralph Ramos. “Number one priority was the safety equipment.”
Las Cruces Public Schools recently returned to full in-person learning after limiting attendance to small groups. The school board recently voted to not access state aid to extend the school year. But federal funding could fill in the gaps for summer programming, as West Las Vegas school districts say they plan to do.
Around 20% of the largest round of funding is meant to be used for recovering from learning loss, which some districts are already planning to use for summer school programs and extra tutoring.
“Now we get into socially emotional needs for students," Ramos said. “That’s a big one where we’re going to be spending a lot of dollars to give them the support.”
Detailed spending plans were not immediately available for individual districts such as Las Cruces, which will receive more than $100 million, according to the report.
Albuquerque Public Schools, which covers around 1 in 5 public school students, will get around $375 million.
That means up to a third of the Albuquerque budget will come from pandemic relief funding in the coming years, according to the Legislative Finance Committee, which met with district officials Wednesday.
Albuquerque Public Schools also did not immediately share pandemic relief spending records. Both schools have spent around 60% of the first tranche of funding, according to the Legislative Finance Committee Report.
This article has been corrected to show that the Las Cruces school board had previously voted to limit attendance to small groups, not remain in remote learning.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.