ESSER Funding: Requirements and Opportunities for States and Districts for COVID-19 Relief

Due to the pandemic, states and districts are getting a large influx of money from the federal government- known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER. 

On June 8th, the Education Policy Club on Clubhouse held a workshop on ESSER funding. Moderators covered the main facts about ESSER, how states and districts are allowed to use the funds, the differences between the three ESSER funds, and the state plans that have been approved thus far. Practitioners and researchers on the panel discussed essential things to consider and how the work is playing out locally.

Thank you to our panel: Maria Worthen, the Founder & Principal Consultant of Education Policy Strategies, Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney, the CEO of Nabaa Consulting, Christine M. T. Pitts, the Resident Policy Fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Becky Dukes, the District Director of Federal and Accountability Programs in Allendale County Schools in South Carolina, and Dr. Mina Jo Blazy, the Director of Research Learning and Data for a small district in Southern California. 

Maria Worthen, a federal education policy expert, kicked off the conversation by providing a factual overview of ESSER and where the funds originated. 

What is ESSER funding? 

ESSER is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. ESSER funds is an umbrella title referring to funds coming from 3 COVID-19 stimulus bills. These funds are distributed to State Educational Agencies (SEAs) and school districts/Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to help safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Nation’s students.

  • In March 2020, the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided $13.2 billion towards the ESSER fund. 

  • In January 2021, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) provided $54.3 billion in supplemental ESSER funding, known as the ESSER II fund. 

  • In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) provided $122.7 billion supplemental ESSER funding, known as the ARP ESSER or ESSER III fund. The funds of the ARP came with some more guidelines

    • Two-thirds of the ARP funds were immediately available to states; however, the rest of the funds will be released to the 50 states and D.C. once the U.S. Department of Education has received their plan for the funds. 40 states have submitted their plans, and 7 have been approved so far

  • All ESSER funds are distributed to states in the same proportions of funds awarded through Part A of Title I of ESEA in the previous fiscal year. 

  • ESSER funds have specific methods of distribution and allowable uses

    • Allowable uses are related to preventing, preparing for, and responding to COVID-19 and the associated issues. This includes the health and safety, and infrastructure aspects of COVID-19 and addresses the consequences of school shutdowns and their impact on students. 

      • For example: addressing learning loss, preparing schools for reopening, and testing, repairing, and upgrading projects to improve air quality in school buildings. 

  • Maria emphasized that this is a substantial amount of money that will be used for years (depending on contracts), and so it will be incumbent upon districts to find sustainable and innovative strategies for the funds. This is not a time for tweaking around the edges or just to add a tutoring program but to address the changes that education leaders have been asking for years. 

Becky Dukes, a state and district level expert from South Carolina, explained differences between the ARP ESSER and ESSER I/II funds and the seven state plans that have been approved for by the U.S. Department of Education. 

Seven State Plans were approved on July 8th: Arkansas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Washington D.C. The activities in these plans are a good indication of how other states might approach using these funds. 

  • Addressing Learning Loss is an essential requirement of ARP ESSER funds: 20% of the funds sent down to LEAs must be used to address learning loss by implementing evidence-based practices. These practices include summer learning and enrichment, extended day/year, and comprehensive after-school programs. 

    • These programs must respond not only to students’ academic needs but also their socio-emotional needs. They also must address the particular impact that COVID may have on student groups such as the homeless student population and students in foster care situations. 

  • In ESSER II funds there is a category to address infrastructure issues related to COVID-19: this also includes air quality and other structural problems in schools. 

Becky then discussed some highlights from the 7 approved state plans, for more information on these and other state plans follow this link

(Please note that as of 7/27, 17 state plans have been approved) 

Christine Pitts covered some high-level considerations about ESSER plans that she is looking out for based on her education policy expertise at the local and federal levels. 

  • Who is innovating?: Christine felt that while reviewing these state plans, this moment was reminiscent of the analysis around state ESSA plans and the assessment waivers. She wants us not to get caught up too much in reporting the exact plans but to really examine which states and districts are pushing the edge. Who is going above and beyond to ensure we are not bouncing back to business as usual?

  • A distinctive difference between ESSER I/II and ESSER III funds: ESSER I/II had a set aside for GEARS (Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund) which the ARP ESSER does not. This is important because when those funds were released in the spring and fall of 2020, many state legislatures were not open. This allowed governors and state agencies to have a lot of control and authority for allocating and prioritizing those funds. 

    • This means as decisions are made around ARP ESSER funds, we will see more state policymakers taking bold actions to use these funds. 

  • Christine has noticed some exciting innovations around assessments: Before this, we saw little to no assessment innovation because we lacked the funding and time to make it happen. We are now seeing some states come together and think through how they can use this money in the future. 

  • States should take advantage of the expansive ESSER regulations: The regulations for ESSER spending are more open than other federal programs such as IDEA and ESSA. At the same time, states are at capacity working to create and implement these plans. With states’ limited capacity, they need not spend the funds the same way they would for other federal dollars and could be more expansive with using the ESSER funds-even if that requires more planning in the short term. 

  • Districts and states need to think through how to spend their funds and be aware of vendor agendas: Companies that provide education services are eager to get their hands on these funds. While the funds can be spent over a longer period of time (a few years), they have a much narrower amount of time (1 year) to obligate the funds and decide contracts/grants and allocations to districts. 

Dr. Mina Jo Blazy rounds out the discussion with her district-level policy and research expertise. Dr. Mina is on her district’s ESSER plan team and has some interesting insights about that experience. 

  • Dr. Mina is in a district in California that is being given $55 million in ESSER funds with additional regulations. Districts must meet an economically disadvantaged number of students to receive the funds, which her district did. Dr. Mina then outlined other district requirements from the state for their ESSER plans, which are due in September. 

    • Districts have to update their COVID-19 safety plan every 6 months, with community and stakeholder feedback. 

      • The state requires an online town hall with stakeholders, hoping for more minority voices. 

    • California created very specific guidelines for how districts must support students with disabilities and racial/ethnic minority students- who have a large gap in achievement from other students. 

    • Districts must detail what PD and programs will be used to address “academic impact” (a new word for “learning loss” in California).  

    • ESSER I/II funds did not have as many reporting and plan requirements as ESSER III. 

      • Becky Dukes agreed with this statement; she also noticed quite a bit of increased accountability around ARP ESSER funds. She also said that plans must show how they are directly related to COVID-19 needs in her state of South Carolina. 

To learn more about ESSER funding policy, and to join the Education Policy Club on the Clubhouse app, visit educationpolicystrategies.net.

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