It’s not a “blank check,” says District 202 school board member Gretchen Livingston.

But the $3.7 million in federal COVID relief money is, in her words, an “opportunity to seize the moment.”

Illinois is getting more than $7 billion for schools, from three different pieces of legislation. The largest chunk of that cash is from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, the rest from earlier federal bills. The aid is being parceled out to school districts around the state.

District 202 superintendent Eric Witherspoon told the Board of Education Monday night that while specifics are yet to be ironed out, the determining factor in spending the money is “what effect has the pandemic had on young people?”

The spending has to be pandemic-related. There are restrictions. One possible example Witherspoon gave was adding a social worker at the special education day school, “because we want to make the day school more therapeutic with issues that have started to emerge from the pandemic.”

Another possibility is “more reading and literacy teachers so we can help students catch up” from learning loss.

Even though the district is getting additional funds (some from legislation before the American Rescue Plan), part of the money might be used to offset additional COVID-related costs such as more PPE, cleaning supplies, air filters and other expenses associated with reopening the building during a pandemic.

It’s uncertain how long it will take for all of the money to arrive and how long districts will have to spend it.

District 202 is in stable financial condition, or at least as stable as a school district can be in challenging financial times. Evanston/Skokie District 65, the elementary school feeder to ETHS, is in financial trouble. So the $10.6 million that the district is getting from the federal legislation could certainly help.

District 65 has already eliminated four reading specialist positions for the next school year and is also letting go several library aides and cafeteria workers. That was part of a $1.9 million budget reduction.

But the outlook is even worse, with red ink projections of $15 million by the 2025-26 school year, so more job cuts are likely, along with the possibility of school closings.

District 65 officials have not commented yet on how they hope to use the federal dollars.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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