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Arizona schools have $1 billion in unspent COVID funds. Officials say it will get used in time

Sonoran Foothills School
(Photo courtesy of Deer Valley Unified School District)
Students arrive on the first day of school at Sonoran Foothills School in Phoenix.

Time is running out for Arizona schools to spend $1 billion in remaining COVID-19 relief funds the state received in 2021, but the state Department of Education says a plan is in place to make sure unspent money won’t be sent back to the federal government.

Arizona received over $4 billion for schools from multiple COVID relief bills passed by Congress, earmarked for charter schools and districts to address the impacts of the pandemic on childhood education.

In a report to lawmakers in June, ADE officials stated that $1 billion of that money was unspent. Under the law, the state must “obligate,” or officially designate uses for, those funds by Sept. 30, and the money must be spent by the end of January 2025.

Department spokesman Rick Medina said all of the remaining funds have already been obligated.

“Some will not be used for its original purpose and those funds are in the process of being re-routed,” Medina said.

Chuck Essigs with the Arizona Association of School Business Officials said the remaining $1 billion is not sitting unspent due to a lack of planning and he is confident the money will be spent before federal deadlines.

“People shouldn't look at it as money that was just there and districts didn't know what to do with it,” Essigs said. “All the districts that I've talked to have very specific plans for how they're going to carry forward spending that money.”

Schools have a lot of flexibility when deciding how to spend the money, which Congress approved to address problems like learning loss attributed to education disruptions during the pandemic.

Medina said the department also plans to file an extension request with the federal government at the end of the month that would push the deadline to spend all of that money to February 2026.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that all of the funds are expended to help improve outcomes for students in Arizona,” Medina said.

Essigs said he believes schools will actually spend their remaining COVID dollars before the original deadline in January 2025 but that ADE may need additional time to file required paperwork with the federal government detailing how the money was spent.

“Anytime you deal with the federal government, it's a complicated process,” Essigs said. “That's just the nature of – the federal government's large, a lot of people, and a lot of rules and regulations. So it seems like nothing ever simple, but it gets done.”

How do you know what to pay attention to or what our elected officials are doing to represent us? Subscribe to Prickly from KJZZ’s Politics Desk.

Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.