As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the United States in 2020, public schools faced several acute challenges. First, schools needed to maintain their staffing levels in the face of an economic shutdown that threatened the state and local revenues that schools rely on. Second, schools needed to bring student achievement back to pre-pandemic levels following the trauma and missed learning time caused by the pandemic. To address these challenges, the federal government provided states and school districts with $189 billion to respond to the pandemic through three rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants. North Carolina received $5.6 billion of those funds.

The federal government was clear on the purpose of these funds. They were intended to address “a wide range of needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic, including reopening schools safely, sustaining their safe operation, and addressing students’ social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs resulting from the pandemic.” Districts were required to dedicate at least 20 percent of their funding to address “learning loss.”

The final round of funding, provided under 2021’s American Rescue Plan Act must be obligated by September 2024. Schools have until January 2025 to liquidate their funds unless they get federal approval for an extension, which could push this date to January 2026. The looming expiration of these federal funds means that our schools face a substantial funding cliff even though the challenges created by the pandemic largely remain. Public school students have yet to recover from the academic losses due to the pandemic. Continued investment is necessary to continue supporting academic achievement and to reduce racial and economic opportunity gaps. North Carolina’s public schools have done a commendable job rebounding from the pandemic, but the loss of federal funding threatens to derail this progress.

As this brief demonstrates, the negative impacts of these funding cliffs fall hardest on Black families and working-class families with low incomes. State lawmakers must act to replace these expiring federal funding streams with state funding. Failure to do so will derail pandemic recovery and exacerbate racial and economic opportunity gaps that hamstring North Carolina’s ability to create a multiracial democracy and an economy where all can flourish.

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