Opportunity Knocked with COVID Funding for Schools: Here’s How to Answer

July 08, 2021
Girl with path

Just over $200 billion. That’s how much money the government is funneling into elementary and secondary schools to help them recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s more than twice the next biggest influx of funding that K-12 education has ever seen.

It’s also an overwhelming number, particularly when broken down into all its components. There are requirements to better serve students experiencing homelessness, to address learning loss, and to enhance after-school and enrichment programs.

However, the programs also provide a great deal of flexibility to school districts. Michael Griffith, Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, recently shared his insights on this Apex EdChat, which explores the possibilities available to districts.

‌Griffith uses his expertise in school funding to help track when grants must be obligated and what plans and programs are considered allowable uses. He also keeps tabs on the unknowns, such as details about when funding must be fully expended.

Many local districts have already begun spending toward short-term initiatives such as recovering lost classroom time with summer school. As districts look toward the future, their focus ranges from closing the digital divide to establishing community schools to ensuring support for social and emotional learning. There are even calls to redesign and reinvent schools based on more individualized assessments of students’ educational needs.

‌‌But first, what’s available?

Resources and Timelines

Congress passed multiple federal stimulus funding initiatives in 2020 and 2021. These relief packages stack on top of one another, but each has distinct objectives and allocations that address the needs of different groups or subgroups. They provide grants for public K-12 schools according to the proportions established under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Title-IA.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act

  • Passed in March 2020 with the goal of stabilizing education funding.
  • Established the ESSER Fund.
  • Provided $13.5 billion, or about $270 per pupil.
  • Set a deadline of September 2022 for funds to be obligated.

The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act

  • Passed in December 2020 to provide emergency relief funding to local schools.
  • Provided $54.3 billion, or about $1,100 per pupil, in supplemental funding known as ESSER II.
  • Set a deadline of September 2023 for funds to be obligated‌.

The American Rescue Plan‌ Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ARP ESSER)

  • Passed in March 2021 to help students and educators deal with the impacts of the pandemic.
  • Provided $126 billion, or about $2,600 per pupil, in supplemental funding known as ESSER III as well as funding for special education, non-public schools, and other groups.
  • Set a deadline of September 2024 for funds to be obligated.

Funds are funneled from the federal government through state education agencies, whose spending plans must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education. School districts need to apply to their state’s education department in order to receive allocations.

States have the right to reserve 10% of these funds, half of which must address interrupted learning. The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking what each state plans for the remaining 90%.

How Can Schools Spend ESSER Funds?

Different expenditure rules apply for different sources, but in general, the terms of the grants are incredibly flexible, so schools will profit from creative thinking concerning what can be used where.

Schools can invest in anything allowed under a variety of previous education acts, including:

  • Safely reopening schools.
  • Accelerating student learning.
  • Upgrading school facilities.
  • Investing in diverse and qualified educators.
  • Building ties to community programs.

Griffith encourages schools to consider using the money on programs or technology that will help them in the long term but won’t require ongoing funding—because these grants will run out in a couple of years.

There’s a great opportunity right now to reinvent how you do schools,” Griffith said. He encourages schools and school districts to reach out to their teachers and larger communities and involve them in these conversations.

‌He believes schools can help students with urgent and COVID-specific needs and apply the social and pedagogical lessons they learned during the pandemic for a future of education that is equitable and includes innovative blends of in-person and online learning.

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