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Even With Federal COVID Relief Dollars, Schools Still Face Hiring Difficulties

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — New York was awarded $8.1 billion dollars in the latest round of school COVID-19 assistance. Schools' needs have changed since the beginning of the pandemic.

The first round of federal COVID relief aid helped many schools pay for things like cleaning supplies, better ventilation systems or laptops for remote learning, but now in round three of the funding — and the third school year affected by the pandemic — the biggest need for many schools is labor.

"We know that in the Southern Tier, one of one of our folks told us that they're down dozens of bus drivers, down three nurses, custodians," said Andrew Pallotta, president of the New York State Union of Teachers. He testified at a joint education hearing at the state legislature earlier this month.

In many districts, there's also a big demand for programs that'd help kids make up lost learning hours and provide social and emotional support. Those programs need qualified teaching staff who can run them.

Windsor Central School District in Broome County is experiencing it's share of job vacancies. Jason Andrews is the superintendent there and said getting these one-time federal COVID funds is kind of like trying to pay your rent with winnings from a scratch off ticket.

"That can give you some immediate relief," Andrews said. "But the cost drivers in schools, and really the largest cost drivers, of course, are salary and benefits."

Salaries and benefits have to be paid year after yearm, but COVID relief funds are finite: once you spend them, there's no guarantee you're going to get more money next year.

So many district leaders have this dilemma — they have all this extra federal money, but they can't use it to hire the teachers and staff they need.

State Senator John Liu says schools should use the federal funds to make hires, and trust that by the time COVID money runs out, the state money — or foundation aid — will be there, so that they can keep paying salaries.

"The foundation aid coming from the state will be fully phased in by the time the federal funding ends, so that there is no fiscal cliff," Liu said.

New York expanded foundation aid, or state’s share of schools funding, in this year's budget, but because the total amount of new state aid is in the billions of dollars, legislators decided to dole it out little by little.

Each district gets a different amount per student, based on a variety of factors like student poverty rate, the number of kids learning English as a second language, and the amount of money the district can raise on its own with local property taxes. It's a formula that was designed to distribute state funds where they're needed most.

Some critics have said it's not perfect, and in some school districts, like Windsor, all that money still might not be enough to attract a much needed bus driver or school nurse, especially with today’s labor crunch.

"It's a real problem when someone can make $5 an hour more at Dunkin Donuts than they can working in a school district," Andrews said.

Andrews added he always appreciates more funding for his district. But he said he's not sure yet if those dollars are going to translate into permanent jobs.

Curious about your school's funding? You can look up the increased amount of state foundation aid for most school districts in New York State here. For federal COVID-19 relief aid allocations, download the data from NYSED here.