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Billions Come to K-12 Schools for Safe, Equitable Reopening

The American Rescue Plan will bring more than $130 billion to K-12 schools to help them reopen safely, make up for lost learning and address inequities made worse by the pandemic.

One of the classrooms, with desks arranged in a socially-distanced manner, at the newly-renovated school building for Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and Breakthrough Magnet School-North in the Blue Hills Neighbor Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in the North End of Hartford.
Americans now believe the risk that students will fall behind academically without in-person instruction is greater than the health risks a return to school poses to students or teachers, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. More schools may be opening their doors to students on a full- or part-time basis, but the U.S. Department of Education recently reported that as of February, 43 percent of elementary students and 48 percent of middle school students were still fully remote.

President Biden campaigned on a pledge to reopen most schools within his first 100 days in office. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) provides historic support of more than $130 billion to help K-12 schools open safely, address learning loss and improve access to online learning. Students whose families have suffered the worst economic and health impacts from the pandemic have also experienced the greatest educational setbacks, and provisions throughout the ARP address their needs.

“It will take years to address the devastating impacts of COVID-19 — including the ways that the pandemic exacerbated the existing inequities in our education system,” said Secretary of Education Michael Cardona when the bill was signed. “To repair the harm done, our schools and educators will need predictable resources.”

Help on a Massive Scale

The bill allocates $122.8 billion for an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). The first $800 million of these funds are set aside to be used by states to provide services to students experiencing homelessness. The remaining $122 billion will be distributed to State Education Agencies (SEAs).

SEAs will keep 10 percent and distribute 90 percent to Local Education Agencies (LEAs). The amount of ESSER funding received by each state, and allocated to each district in a state, will be based on its relative share of Title I, Part A funding, reflecting an overall aim to help disadvantaged students. Nonpublic schools will receive $2.75 billion.

As a condition of receiving ARP dollars, states must ensure that funding for K-12 education in FY22 and FY23 is at least the same share of total state spending as it was on average from FY17 to FY19. Cuts to high-need districts must be less than per-student cuts across all districts. Per-student funding for high-poverty districts must be at least as much as it was in FY19.

The ARP includes additional investments in equity. It allocates $2.58 billion for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grants to states, as well as $200 million for IDEA preschool grants and $250 million for programs for infants and toddlers. It provides nearly $7.2 billion to an Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) within the Federal Communications Commission for educational devices and connections to enable remote learning. 

The bill also appropriates $850 million to the Bureau of Indian Education for bureau-operated schools and tribally-controlled colleges or universities. (An exact portion for K-12 education is not specified.) It makes $850 million available to the Department of Education for awards to “outlying areas” — the United States Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.  

In addition to ARP dollars, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it will invest $10 billion in testing and screening to help schools reopen. 

“After one of our country’s darkest hours, the American Rescue Plan shows us help is on the way,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “For schools, this funding means real funds that impact what happens inside the classroom, academically, socially and emotionally.”

Spending the Funds

The ARP gives direction to states regarding the use of their 10 percent: at least 5 percent to address learning loss, 1 percent each for summer enrichment and afterschool programs, and a maximum of .5 percent for administration. This leaves them 2.5 percent to use at their discretion. As is clarified in a report from the Congressional Research Service, these percentages represent portions of the full amount sent to the state (example below). Many states will have tens of millions of dollars to spend as they wish, hundreds of millions in some cases.

A sample breakdown of State Education Agency use of ESSER funds from the Congressional Research Service. 

“We hope that states don't play a shell game and use the dollars to backfill state cuts,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director, advocacy and governance for AASA. “The biggest thing we're going to be looking for is ensuring that federal dollars get to the local level in a manner that's all additional funding.”

LEAs will receive the bulk of ESSER funds, and will have the most freedom to use them. They are required to use at least 20 percent of their funds to address learning loss through evidence-based interventions such as after-school programs, extended days or school years and summer learning. Like SEAs, they are asked to ensure that these programs benefit poor and minority students, who have experienced greater learning loss during school closures.

Districts can spend the remainder on specific local needs. Possible uses include investments in facilities to improve air quality and reduce the possibility of virus transmission, sanitation supplies, coordinating with health departments, providing meals, improving online education programs, professional development, purchasing technology for students, or programs to address the social and emotional impacts of the pandemic. 

It makes sense to avoid obligations that can’t be sustained when stimulus funds are gone, says Phyllis Jordan, editorial director for FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. “One of the big concerns is that people will hire a bunch of teachers or staff members and then have to lay them off in two or three years when the money runs out.”

ARP’s $2.75 billion for nonpublic schools will be administered through the Emergency Funding for Non-Public Schools (EANS) program. EANS grants are intended for schools serving a significant percentage of low-income students and cannot be used for reimbursements to nonpublic schools.

Connecting the Disconnected

School is a lifeline for homeless youth, and it’s been estimated that districts have lost touch with hundreds of thousands of homeless students during the pandemic. Outreach is the only way for schools to know who needs help, says Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The $800 million for homeless students that ARP can support this, and is aimed at “wrap around services” that can enable a team involving educators, family and other community resources to develop and implement a plan of support.

If districts continue to rely on Web-based teaching, it’s not enough to give a homeless student a hot spot or device, says Berg. A student living in a shelter or a car needs a quiet place to study, with help available if they need assistance accessing online assignments. 

With the advent of remote teaching, what started as a digital “homework gap” developed into a “learning gap.” A Pew survey found that 21 percent of Black teens depended on public Wi-Fi, and a quarter were sometimes unable to complete assignments because they couldn’t access them. 

The $7.2 billion in the Emergency Connectivity Fund is for the equipment and telecommunications and information services necessary for equitable remote learning and library services. It will reimburse 100 percent of the costs for these, within cost ranges established by the FCC, including computers, tablets, hot spots, modems and routers. Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel described the ECF as a tool to “support the millions of students locked out of the digital classroom.”  

Other At-Risk Populations

Access aside, remote learning offerings that work for most students may not work at all for those with disabilities. These students have endured months away from the in-person physical therapy, speech therapy or other services that help them stay on track. The ARP doesn't specify how the more than $3 billion in IDEA funds are to be spent, other than to say that they are in addition to other amounts appropriated for programs for students with disabilities.

Half of all American Indian and Alaska Native homes lack a computer, Internet access or both. More than three-fourths of fourth- and eighth-graders from these communities were already scoring at below-proficient levels in math and science before the pandemic closed their schools, facing a learning gap even before the disruption of COVID-19.  

The $850 million appropriated to the Bureau of Indian Education and the Department of Education’s $190 million for American Native, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native Education does not come with special instructions. The ARP says only that it is to be used in accordance with existing guidelines for these agencies. 

Similarly, the Department of Education is instructed to award $850 million to outlying areas (American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) “on the basis of their respective needs.”

Not Over Yet

In recent months, dark clouds over state budget forecasts have dissipated. Thanks to factors including spending cuts, tax revenue from high earners who have prospered during the pandemic and federal stimulus funds, many states are in much better shape than they expected to be at this time; some are surprised to find they have budget surpluses. If they can meet their own obligations to districts, they can invest even more of their ARP funds to address lost learning and student well-being.

Most of the decisions about exactly how this historic influx of funds is spent will occur at the local level, says Noelle Ellerson Ng of AASA, and there’s no one approach that will work for all.

“Some districts might spend a hundred percent of their funds on learning loss, some might spend more heavily on staff or on curriculum-based instructional support. It's going to vary and that's perfectly fine and allowable.”

The ARP funding, in combination with support from the first and second CARES acts, is a significant and appropriate investment in helping schools reopen safely, but the damage done to schools, students and families is deep, she says.  

“We learned very quickly when the school shut down exactly how critical schools were not only to instructional learning, but to keeping the economy running,” she says. “We're going to have to treat teachers like the professionals they are, and that's going to cost more.”

It’s time for a purposeful conversation about the sustained investment necessary to ensure that every child has access to a high-quality public education, she says. “That's going to take leadership and decisions that are substantively different than what was going on before.” 

This article was originally published by Governing, Government Technology's sister publication.