One Wisconsin school district constructed a new football field. A high school weight room in Iowa is undergoing renovations. One in Kentucky is also renovating two outdoor tracks. This was all made possible by the billions in federal pandemic relief Congress gave to schools.

This money is part of an infusion of $123 billion that will help schools recover from the pandemic. The Associated Press discovered that some districts used large amounts of the funding to pay for athletic projects. There are no limits on how this money can be spent.

Critics claim it is contrary to the intent of the legislation. This was intended to help students catch-up on their learning after months of distant schooling. Many schools claim that the projects help students’ mental and physical health, which is one of the goals allowed by the federal government.

Rep. Bobby Scott is the top Democrat on U.S. House Education Committee. He said that the money should not be used for athletics at the expense academics. He said that the money was intended to aid students and not sports programs.

Scott stated, “I think you can make any case for it, but the purpose of it is to open safely, keep open safely, and deal with learning loss.” These are resources that target the problem of many children not achieving much in a short time period.

Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education said that every dollar spent on pandemic relief could be used for tutoring, reducing class sizes, and other measures to assist students in academic difficulties.

She asked, “Can these districts prove that all their students are college- and career-ready to graduate at the close of this year?” Stop the construction if it isn’t. Stop it immediately.

Exercise equipment companies have attempted to capitalize in some areas of the country by contacting superintendents and school coaches to suggest upgrades.

It is impossible to determine how many schools use pandemic relief for athletics. While districts are required to report to states how they spend the money, some schools use local funds for sports projects and then replace it with federal relief. This is a tactic that circumvents reporting requirements.

This funding is part the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed in March. It sent money to schools and gave more to those who are poorer. This funding is the latest in a series of federal grants Congress has given to states to help them address their education needs. The AP has so far tracked $157 billion in funding for school districts across the country.

Schools have a lot of flexibility when it comes to how they spend the money, but there are only three years in which to do so. This has led some schools to search for quick purchases that don’t require ongoing funding once the federal money has gone.

Whitewater school officials discovered they would receive $2 million in pandemic aid this year. They decided to use most of the money to pay their current expenses and free up $1.6million in local funding for new synthetic turf fields.

Officials from the 1,800 student-athletics district said that the project was urgently needed to replace fields that are prone to flooding. They viewed federal funding as an opportunity to fix the problem without asking for local tax dollars.

Justin Crandall, the athletic director of the school board, stated that if we don’t act now with this money I don’t know when we would do something like this. “I don’t see us being in a district that would vote for turf fields.”

Two school board members opposed, one raising concerns about $400,000 being used to address student loss. This is the minimum amount required to satisfy a 20% requirement.

The plan was approved by the board over these objections and the new football field celebrated its grand opening in September. Caroline Pate-Hefty, the district superintendent, declined to answer any questions regarding the project.

The May vote by the Roland-Story Community Schools District to allocate $100,000 for pandemic relief in order to renovate the high school’s weight room was met with no objections. The district was able to increase its weightlifting platform to 12, and to add custom school branding to the flooring.

Matt Patton, Superintendent of the district, called it a “major safety and health improvement” because the floors are more easily disinfectable. According to him, most federal aid was used for other expenses, such as a full-time psychiatrist, special education teachers, and expanded summer learning opportunities.

The district, which includes approximately 1,000 students, has attempted to return to normal operations, like many others in rural Iowa. It is back to full in-person education and, just weeks prior to approving the weightroom overhaul, it dropped the mask mandate.

This project is a boon to wrestlers as well as the football team. Recently, the football team boasted that its 39 players had done more than 3,300 training sessions in the off-season. The middle school will use the old equipment.

Leland Schwartz, high school wrestling coach, stated that more kids will be able lift with better equipment. “Anytime we offer more opportunities to our athletes, our programs will be better.

Recently, the East Lyme school board approved a plan to use some federal relief to pay annual operating costs. This freed $175,000 for renovations to a field that had poor drainage. Some members of the board called for swift action in order to complete the work in time for the spring games.

The Pulaski County School Board in Kentucky gave $1 million in pandemic assistance in September to resurface two outdoor tracks. It is a “health-and-wellness” project, according to Superintendent Patrick Richardson. He said it would allow students to take out mask breaks in safe environments.

Education advocates see the decrease in athletics spending as an indication of a breakdown at all levels.

Terra Wallin, associate director of Education Trust, stated that federal officials didn’t provide clear funding guidelines and state education departments failed to monitor schools’ spending. She also wondered if athletics spending in districts was based on what is best for students.

Wallin stated that the U.S. Education Department should issue a new guidance and intervene before other districts make similar decisions.

She said, “There will be districts next spring who are going to consider things like this.” “There is still time to influence them, and make sure that districts do the right thing.”

The Education Department stated in a statement that it had made clear that the funds must be used for “reasonable, necessary” expenses to respond to the pandemic. The Education Department stated that there is “ample evidence” that districts have used the funding to protect schools by improving ventilation, increasing vaccine access, and testing for viruses.

The department stated that they encourage all districts to continue to use the funds to address these issues. This includes using our Return to School Roadmap, and providing guidance on how to make use of these funds.

There has been very little opposition to athletic spending so far. Education officials in Illinois rejected an Illinois school’s request to use federal money for a football field in August. Other states claim it’s not their right to challenge school spending decisions.

Iowa’s education department has approved the Roland-Story weight room project. It stated that federal guidelines allow for capital expenditures for special purposes equipment.

Heather Doe, spokesperson for the agency, stated that funding priorities are determined locally. She said that the department does not have the authority to refuse spending by a district unless it is “definitely unacceptable.”

Both parties believe it is wrong to spend money on sports in Congress. Democrats claim it isn’t what it was intended for and Republicans argue it’s a sign that it wasn’t necessary.

“Congress allocated billions less than what the CDC thought was necessary to safely reopen school, paving way for rampant waste and misuse,” stated Rep. Virginia Foxx, a top Republican on House Committee on Education and Labor.

Fitness companies are increasing their sales pitches.

Chad May, the CEO of Commercial Fitness Equipment, Eugene, Oregon said that he is currently working on five new school projects per week. His company has so far taken on $25M in weight room upgrades funded by pandemic aid.

May stated that many of the calls come from districts with low funding who want to have the same facilities as their wealthy peers. Some are simply looking for ways to use federal aid within the three year deadline.

Push Pedal Pull is the company behind Story City’s high school weight-room overhaul. They also have similar projects in South Dakota and Iowa.

Luke Reiland, an Iowa company representative, stated that he has been calling schools to inform them of the possibility of funding for these types of expenses. As schools seek to prevent students leaving for bigger cities, he sees fitness and weight rooms as becoming more important in smaller towns.

Reiland stated, “I’m right here in the fight… to get this allocated money.” “I believe that a lot these small schools are trying this money to really improve a bunch of things, and I am just trying get my share of the pie.”