Schools shutdown revives questions about where Chicago is spending its COVID-19 relief money

School testing site
Views of people people gathering at a public COVID-19 testing site at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy during the Pandemic on November 13, 2020. Critics say not enough federal relief money is being spent to help schools fight the spread of COVID-19, including not using it to operate school testing sites. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ, file photo
School testing site
Views of people people gathering at a public COVID-19 testing site at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy during the Pandemic on November 13, 2020. Critics say not enough federal relief money is being spent to help schools fight the spread of COVID-19, including not using it to operate school testing sites. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ, file photo

Schools shutdown revives questions about where Chicago is spending its COVID-19 relief money

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Critics of Mayor Lori Lightfoot are again questioning how her administration spent federal COVID-19 relief money as the city’s schools remain closed amid a standoff over the safety of in-person learning.

The city of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools got in total nearly $4 billion dollars from the federal government to recover from the pandemic. While much of that money is being spent on that recovery, some activists say not enough of it is being spent to help schools fight the spread of the coronavirus right now.

“If Mayor Lightfoot had used our COVID relief funds to invest in public health and safety like she was supposed to, we would not be here today,” said Saqib Bhatti with the Action Center on Race and the Economy.

Bhatti and organizers with United Working Families took issue with how Lightfoot’s administration allocated federal recovery money when it passed the 2022 budget last fall. They called the budget a “shell game” that still “increased payments to Wall Street and the police” and “backfilled” routine spending with recovery dollars.

Their renewed criticism also comes after the U.S. Treasury issued its final rule for how federal relief money can be spent by local municipalities, which reiterates it cannot be spent paying off debt or replenishing reserves.

But how COVID recovery money got spent in Chicago is much more complicated.

Mayoral spokesman Cesar Rodriguez early Tuesday morning called the group’s criticisms “patently false.”

“Our financial team has been extremely conscious to ensure that we followed the Treasury guidelines,” Rodriguez said. “ARP funding is and will be used only for eligible costs as outlined in the guidance issued by the U.S. Treasury.”

City officials have repeatedly defended their use of federal funds and according to city budget documents, $1.3 billion of its $1.88 billion was directed to “essential government services.” The rest went to a variety of new initiatives and programs aimed at recovering from the pandemic, including $20 million for students and $65 million for youth jobs and out-of-school programs.

Chicago Public Schools also got $1.78 billion from the federal government, but the money is allocated over multiple years through 2024. A presentation on the district’s website indicates $273 million would be directed to “school reopening needs” this school year. The district is also posting how it’s spending COVID-19 money online.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez said there was “not a lot of clarity” around how federal money from the American Rescue Plan was being distributed in the budget. She said even though CPS has their own federal recovery money, the city could be doing more, like operating testing sites at schools.

During a hearing with aldermen Monday, the city’s Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Allison Arwady outlined a lot of the precautions put in place this school year, including new ventilation systems, testing and contact tracing, and a system to “flip” individual schools to remote learning when outbreaks occurred. Arwady said this week alone, her department distributed 200,000 KN-95 masks to CPS schools.

But the school district’s contact tracing and testing program was off to a slow and rocky start before cases started surging. Negotiations between Lightfoot’s administration and the Chicago Teachers Union appear to be stuck on testing protocols and what metrics would trigger a shut down.

The school district has spent $26.5 million on testing students and staff this school year through a contract with Thermo Fisher Scientific. The district is planning to purchase 350,000 antigen tests – rapid tests that can be given at home with quick results – from SHIELD Illinois, but it is not clear how much those will cost or when they will be available.

Requests to Chicago Public Schools for comment were not answered as of publication.

Becky Vevea covers city hall for WBEZ. Follow @beckyvevea.