Essay More Money on Learning, Less Learning Loss? Variations in How Rhode Island Districts Spent Federal COVID Relief Funding
An Essay for the Learning Curve
Xiaoyang Ye
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To address the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students in PK–12 education, the federal government granted local school districts more than $190 billion from three COVID relief packages in 2020 and 2021. Because state legislatures or departments of education are not allowed to limit how local school districts spend the funding, school districts can use it for such activities as individualized instructional supports, summer learning, building renovations, updated technology and books, health and cleaning, and mental health supports. But little is known about how local school districts spend the COVID relief funding, whether school districts vary in their spending patterns, and what impacts the different patterns might have on student learning outcomes.

Data from Rhode Island, which received $646.2 million in funds, show that although districts across the state varied considerably in their spending, most of the funding was spent on instruction, services, and facilities. And in districts that spent more funding on instruction, the data show students experienced less learning loss than their peers in districts that spent less on instruction and learning.

Key Findings

In Rhode Island, over the course of the first two COVID relief packages, data show the following:

  • Spending patterns shifted from COVID-related facilities—such as cleaning and health services—and virtual learning equipment under the first relief funding package to instructional support in the second.
  • During the first COVID relief package, 27 percent of funds were used for health-related equipment or facilities improvements, and 10 percent were used for additional services for helping students and teachers to navigate the pandemic.
  • In districts that faced large declines in revenue because of state aid reductions or enrollment declines, spending on teaching mostly went to teacher salaries and compensation.
  • Spending patterns in Rhode Island largely shifted to instructional support in the second COVID funding package, with 42 percent of funds concentrating on classroom instructional needs and 34 percent supporting teachers and students.
  • In the 2020–21 school year, students enrolled in districts that spent more funds on instruction had an 8 percentage-point higher proficiency rate in math and a 2 percentage-point higher proficiency rate in English than students in districts that spent more on other areas like facilities, compared with only a 0.6 percent difference in both math and English in 2018–19.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had strong effects on student learning, with average scores on reading and math declining between 2020 and 2022. These data focus on Rhode Island, but they can provide insight into how district spending choices have affected academic outcomes. Future work is needed to further identify the impacts of school spending during the pandemic on student outcomes and to consider how policies, interventions, and resources affected these outcomes, but these data suggest an impact of spending patterns on student learning.

School districts have considerable flexibility in determining how to use relief funds and how to use money for instruction, but many are driven by their financial situations to different choices on spending plans. More districts and schools are spending funds on teaching and learning, but many of them may also face the challenges of spending their COVID money on hiring or purchases to improve school facilities. How best to target funding on activities that will support all students, especially disadvantaged and at-risk students and their teachers, remains a challenging but important task for school districts to continue expanding equitable access to educational opportunities.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags K-12 education School funding COVID-19
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
States Rhode Island
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