Since the COVID pandemic began in March 2020, the U.S. government has provided Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. The complex funding program supports schools in the fight against coronavirus. With over 4,600 U.S. schools closed due to Omicron during the first week of 2022, spending ESSER funding to avoid learning disruptions and learning loss is more crucial than ever. This article will explore the ins and outs of ESSER funding and how schools can best leverage these funds to keep students in the classroom.
What are ESSER funds?
ESSER funds are a branch of the Education Stabilization Fund, or ESF. The funds represent an “investment of over $263 billion into state and institutional COVID-19 recovery and rebuilding efforts, managed by the U.S. Department of Education to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus impacts on education for our nation’s students.” ESSER funds are distributed to state educational agencies (SEAs) to provide local educational agencies (LEAs), including charter schools that are LEAs, with emergency relief funds to address the impact that COVID-19 continues to have on schools across the country.
The federal government has enacted three stages of ESSER since its being signed into law on March 27, 2020:
- ESSER I: enacted in March 2020 with a total allocation of $13.2 billion
- ESSER II: enacted in December 2020 with a total allocation of $53.4 billion
- ESSER ARP (ESSER III): enacted in March 2021 with a total allocation of $123 billion
What other funds are available to schools?
The ESF was established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and is comprised of four primary emergency relief funds:
- The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER)
- The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund
- The Emergency Assistance to non-Public Schools (EANS) Fund
- The Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund
Who is eligible for ESSER funding?
ESSER funding is primarily available to K-12 public schools. For private schools, the CARES Act “makes a distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit private schools…not-for-profit private schools are eligible for equitable ESSER funds.” In contrast, the CARES Act states that for-profit private schools are not eligible for this funding give stipulations around equitable services.
Equitable services are instances where “federal education aid has been directed in an equitable way toward helping all children in need, regardless of the type of school they attend.” While not-for-profit private school students may be eligible for a proportionate share of education funding for many federal education programs, students in for-profit private schools are not. Private schools can work with their local LEAs to determine their eligibility and to seek funding.
How is the government distributing funds?
The government distributes ESSER funds through federal and state agencies. The overall ESSER funds come from federal sources such as CARES, CRRSA, and ARP. The federal government distributes the ESSER funds to the states based on Title 1 guidelines. States then distribute funding to school districts along those same guidelines.
How can schools use their ESSER funds?
ESSER funds can be used in a myriad of ways to support students’ mental and physical health. Some ideas for funding allocation include:
- Making building improvements designed to decrease virus transmission and improve air quality
- Purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean buildings
- Providing mental health services, supports, and meals during school closures
- Purchasing educational technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity)
- Addressing learning loss
- Planning and implementing activities related to summer learning
- Closing the homework gap by narrowing the digital divide
- Acceleration for at-promise students
According to an NPR survey conducted in summer 2021, 57% of education leader respondents said they planned to spend the money on renovating old school facilities or building new ones. 75% of superintendents surveyed said they were spending on summer learning and other enrichment activities, while nearly half (44%) said they planned to provide “high-intensity tutoring” during the 2021-2022 school year. 52% of school leaders said they would invest in educators’ social-emotional learning practices and/or trauma-informed training. 42% said they would add learning time by paying staff to work longer hours, and 66% planned to add the specialized team.
When do ESSER funds run out?
ESSER I funds, enacted in March 2020, have an application deadline of September 30th, 2023. ESSER II funds, passed in December 2020, have the same deadline. And ESSER III funds, enacted in December 2021, currently have no application deadline, but the application is encouraged by September 30, 2022.
Why is investing in UV-C disinfection a good use of ESSER funds?
Americans spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, where concentrations of pollutants are often 2-5x higher than outdoors. Scientists have already proven UV-C’s ability to combat the coronavirus. In August 2021, a group of researchers published a review of 18 different scientific studies and papers concluding that “SARS-CoV-2 and coronaviruses are relatively easily inactivated by UV light, even when aerosolized…UV light could be used on highly touched surfaces in crowded spaces, where rapid and efficient disinfection of indoor environments is crucial to control the spread of highly infective agents such as SARS-CoV-2.”
UVC is a disinfection technology proven to improve air quality with many clear benefits, including no chemical use and a track record of efficacy in schools beginning almost 100 years ago. After UV lamps were installed in Philadelphia day schools to combat the spread of measles in the 1930s, researchers found “no epidemic spread of contagion among highly susceptible groups of children was recorded within the irradiated atmosphere.”
Safer spaces enabled by UV-C technology lead to safer places where students and staff can stay in school and avoid learning disruption. “Kids that are 6-8 years old haven’t known a normal school year and have paid a terrible price,” says Arne Duncan, former Education Secretary in the Obama administration. “We have to do everything we can to keep our schools open. When schools close, it’s not just classes that get missed–it’s also the extracurricular activities that keep students engaged and wanting to be at school.” With 71% of Americans of the opinion that we will be living with some form of COVID for the foreseeable future, it’s crucial to find ways to make indoor spaces safer to help students stay in a healthy routine and participating in classes in-person. UV-C light is an ideal disinfection solution for dynamic school environments with high-touch surfaces requiring frequent cleaning, combatting surface, air, and person-to-person pathogen transmission for an extra layer of peace of mind demonstrable to both staff and parents.
What other resources are available to help understand ESSER funds?
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has provided a state-by-state tracker for ESSER funding. This tracker details total ESSER allocation, minimum LEA allocation, SEA documents, SEA set-aside amounts, and SEA plans for set-aside funds for each state. The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education has also established a resource page.
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