ESSER Funds: Here’s What You Need to Know
School districts across the country are finalizing plans to spend ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds. The federal government provided three rounds of aid to schools starting in 2020. While the deadline for the first round has come and gone, there is still a considerable amount of almost $190 billion left to spend.
How much money did districts get? That depends on the district. Some received no funding. Others received about $20,000 per student. The majority of districts received amounts somewhere in the middle. The same formula for Title I aid for disadvantaged students determined the funding amounts. More Title I aid meant more stimulus funding.
Deciding how to spend the money has been difficult. While districts would love to use every dime for new technology, up-to-date programs, and more personnel, the harsh reality is that those options simply couldn’t be first on the list for districts already dealing with financial hardships. Other items take precedence when heating and air units are broken or plumbing doesn’t work properly. Students deserve comfortable environments for learning. Those districts can’t count on local tax revenues for significant improvements, so this funding presents opportunities for improvement projects. However, complete overhauls for remodeling or new construction may not work under the tight timelines of these plans.
Dr. Brian Smith, superintendent of Columbus USD 493 in Columbus, Kansas, developed a plan for using the funds by meeting with staff to survey how ESSER money would best be allocated to impact students. “We prioritized our spending by gathering data. We also met with stakeholders to gather their input on how the funds should be spent. We reached out to other groups to determine their specific needs (Native Americans, disability advocates, etc.) We also surveyed stakeholders to gather their input– teachers, parents, students, etc.,” noted Dr. Smith. “Finally, we looked at other data like assessment scores and attendance to determine the impact the pandemic had on our students.”
What do ESSER funds mean for your school?
According to regulations, districts must make commitments for specific expenses for the second round of ESSER funding by September 30, 2023. Funding for round three sunsets on September 30, 2024. There are a few strings attached, such as tracking and some restrictions for spending. For example, new guidance for ESSER III states that 20% of those funds must be spent to help students recover from the effects of lost instructional time, including expenses for tutoring, social-emotional learning, testing, home visits, and family communications.
Spending the remainder of the funds has a broad range of options. Districts have purchased technology, upgraded HVAC systems, increased personnel, added academic enrichment programs, and created learning opportunities, such as outdoor classrooms, in addition to paying for the extra materials needed to open schools following closings due to the pandemic.
Dr. Smith said, “We increased our paraprofessional support, which allowed us to support our Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) program. We also hired two instructional coaches/reading specialists who assisted our district in the implementation of a new science-based reading curriculum. We were also able to hire a STEAM teacher, a counselor, and two class size reduction teachers.”
As with anything related to budgets, there is a need for accountability. Dr. Smith needed to follow the Kansas State Department of Education guidelines for spending the funds. “I think their requirements will put us in a good position if we are ever audited because we have proof that the funding was used appropriately,” he observed.
Ways to maximize ESSER funds
September of 2023 and 2024 may seem like a long time from now, but time in education moves quickly. With deadlines to obligate funds approaching, district administrators are searching for ways to make the most of them. Here are just a few ideas:
- Extracurricular activities
- Chromebooks, hotspots, and other tech upgrades
- Repairs to reduce health hazards
- Digital teaching tools
- Hire additional staff
- Custodial supplies
- Improve cybersecurity
- Programs for at-risk populations
- Professional development
These funds have allowed school districts to provide, upgrade, and enhance educational opportunities for students that could not have happened otherwise. According to Dr. Smith, “It has allowed us to move to an evidence-based reading curriculum and provide both the needed professional development and the staffing to implement it effectively. It has also allowed us to fully implement a K-12 MTSS because we could increase our staffing.”
The clock is ticking! It could be challenging for districts to budget for many of these expenditures once the final bell rings without proper planning. Brainstorm with faculty and staff. Survey school families. Talk to students. Together, you can find ways to spend the rest of your ESSER funds in the most impactful ways possible.
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