As Covid relief funds approach end, here’s how Chatham County Schools is dealing with it


School systems across the nation were underfunded, understaffed and underprepared for the onslaught the Covid-19 pandemic had on education.

Because of this major shift, the federal and state governments pumped more than $67 billion into public education through emergency relief funds for public schools, also called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). The funding was designed to address the safe reopening and sustaining of operations of schools and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students. 

Many of the deadlines for using those funds, though, are fast approaching with most ESSER funds set to expire by the beginning of 2024. 

Put the money to work

Chatham County Schools has a total ESSER allotment of more than $21 million. Funds can be used to prevent, reduce or respond to Covid-19 in the classroom. To date CCS has spent $18.4 million of those ESSER funds, leaving $3 million to be spent by June 30, 2024.

Districts across the state have left billions in funding on the table, and if the money isn’t spent by the 2023 or 2024 deadlines, it reverts back to the government. In Chatham, however, there’s a clear methodology for how the district is using the funds. 

ESSER funds have been used in CCS to bring in a variety of innovations. Those include software platforms that provide interventions and personalized learning paths to help with learning needs and improved summer school programming.

The funds have also been used to hire a variety of positions throughout the district. This includes dropout prevention specialists, staff for the district’s Excellence and Equity (E3) team, additional social workers and more. All told, the district hired for more than 50 employees — a combination of vacancies and new positions — using ESSER funds.

The money also helped with underemployment issues by supporting retention and recruitment bonuses through CCS’s 4Rs program — recruitment, retention, recognition and reward. The program included bonuses of $3,750 for retaining employment and referral bonuses of $300 for employees who recruit new people to join the district. The 4Rs program brought more than 50 staff to the district since it began prior to the 2022-2023 school year. 

Approaching the cliff

Now, however, CCS sees the funding cliff approaching. Many of those programs and positions funded by ESSER are at risk of facing budget cuts or being slashed altogether. And some of those pains are coming early.

Last month, CCS announced it was closing its K-8 Virtual Academy at the end of the school year because of budget constraints. The ESSER funds used to support the K-8 Virtual Academy are ending this June. Without those funds, CCS won’t have the budget to keep the academy open. 

Twenty-one million dollars may sound like a great deal for CCS, but managing the funds has been a constant struggle, according to Dr. Amanda Moran, assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support. 

“While it is a large sum of funding, it was not free to assign to anything we wanted,” Moran told the News + Record.  “Many of the pockets of funding had specific requirements for how they had to be used.”

She said because deadlines have varied for different pockets of funding, the money hasn’t been as flexible as the district anticipated.

For example, Moran said there was a desire to use the funds to replace HVAC at schools. Due to the cost of replacing HVAC systems and spending requirements, however, only one to two schools would have qualified.

“What sounds like a large sum of funding quickly gets used when you consider we have over 1,200 employees and 20 schools,” she said.

Deadlines near

ESSER funds received by CCS came in three separate waves, each with its own deadline. The first was ESSER I, signed into law in March 2020 and obligated by September 2022 and spent by January 2023. CCS met those deadlines.

The second was ESSER II, which was signed in December 2020, and must be obligated by September 2023 and spent by January 2024. 

The third was ARP ESSER, also known as ESSER III. These funds came from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed March 2021. The act provided more than $122 billion in additional ESSER funds across the country. These funds must be obligated by September 2024 and spent by January 2025.

CCS also received funds through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), which obligated $3 billion to states and was allocated based on population. These funds came in two waves. The first was GEER I signed in March 2020; the funds had to be obligated by September 2022 and spent by January 2023. CCS met those deadlines.

The second, GEER II, was signed December 2020. These funds must be obligated by September 2023 and spent by January 2024.

Moran said she still holds weekly meetings with budget staff and Chief Financial Officer Tony Messer to update the status of various funding deadlines and obligations.  

Chopping block

The Virtual Academy won’t be the only thing to get cut when ESSER funds expire. Moran said, however, CCS has a plan for reviewing which programs stay and which ones go. 

The district plans to assess which programs are of the greatest need. This includes examining usage reports for softwares and exploring growth data to see what programs will help guide the district in the present and the future. 

Moran also assured that CCS will retain staff positions added for student support in areas such as ESL (English as a Second Language), Exceptional Children, social workers, nurses, etc., since those needs still exist.

Some positions funded by ESSER, however, won’t be retained. This includes interventionists, dropout prevention positions and additional instructional assistants, according to Moran. Many of these positions were hired by specific schools rather than the district at large.

This doesn’t mean that those employees suddenly lose their jobs in CCS. Positions funded with ESSER funds are sunsetting this year and employees will be placed in vacant positions. 

“No staff will lose jobs as a result of ESSER funding,” Moran said.

One of the major hits the end of ESSER funds will cause is a reduction in summer school and summer programming. While required programs will continue using state funding, CCS was able to use ESSER to supplement additional programs and camps for students to reduce summer learning loss. 

Without the increased aid from federal funding, CCS will be reliant on Chatham County Commissioners to supplement gaps. Commissioners and the school board have long touted their mutual relationship, and Moran said the district will lean heavily on them as growth in the county grows while dollars dwindle.

“Investing in employees to serve Chatham County Students will be the biggest challenge for Chatham in the next coming couple of years,” she said.  

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at or on Twitter @b_rappaport

Chatham County Schools, ESSER funds, education, ESSER funding cliff, Dr. Amanda Moran