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Using ESSER Funds to Prepare for a Transformative School Year

 |   |  School Leadership, School Culture, District Leadership, Equity


The COVID-19 pandemic has left elementary and secondary schools across the country in need of additional resources to operate and support their school communities. As educational systems are rebuilt after the disruption of the global pandemic, a new relief fund is providing aid to districts to address trauma, learning acceleration, the digital divide, and much more. Between 2020 and 2021, Congress passed three stimulus bills that provided almost $190.5 billion to the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief Fund, also known as ESSER (NCSL, 2021). 

Districts and schools may be wondering how to best use these funds. According to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), all expenditures using ESSER funds should relate to disruptions resulting from COVID-19 (OESE, 2021). State education agencies (SEAs) must allocate at least 90% of these funds to local education agencies (LEAs). Although each state may have specific guidance around how these funds may be spent (which can be found here), we wanted to provide suggestions for how districts could allocate this money based on research and allowable activities.

  1. Summer learning acceleration and unfinished learning opportunities: Schools and districts are planning for the gaps that virtual learning has left for many students, and ESSER funds will support districts to bridge these gaps. Some key priority areas to build into summer learning acceleration should include focusing on social-emotional learning, implementing high-dosage tutoring, supporting targeted groups of students (i.e., early childhood students who may need more foundational reading support, secondary students who may need credit recovery for promotion requirements, students who have a history of attendance concerns, etc.), incorporating formative assessments in a competency-based approach, and providing professional learning opportunities for educators in core and small-group instruction (CCSSO, 2021). Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, for example, will be compensating students who are in advanced placement courses to tutor other students. Research has repeatedly shown the benefits of robust summer programming for building academic and social-emotional skills (CCSSO, 2021). 
  2. Preparing schools and districts for a comprehensive reopening of schools: Schools and districts should be prepared to receive students and staff members in-person when possible and in a remote and/or hybrid model where applicable. While there are specific COVID-19 guidelines to consider, districts and schools need to thoughtfully approach the reopening of schools and allocate money to ensure a safe return to school. Guilford County Schools plans on preparing schools by configuring indoor and outdoor learning spaces and providing professional development opportunities for teachers in order to minimize the spread of infectious diseases. 
  3. Social-emotional support for students and teachers: Addressing trauma for teachers and students will need to be at the forefront of our work in the coming year. The experiences that students and teachers have faced have left many feeling isolated, anxious, and without a sense of connection. A CDC report states that “compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health–related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24%. and 31%, respectively” (CDC, 2020). In order for students to feel equipped to learn, districts should start off the year with SEL curriculum. Check out our previous blog here for more information on SEL supports. 
  4. Purchasing educational technology for students in order to prepare for school closures: In 2021, NCSL reported that 16 million students, or 30%, lacked adequate internet access or devices for online learning (NCSL, 2020). In order to proactively address any issues with technology, districts should plan on allocating a certain amount of ESSER funds to address the digital divide. Guilford County Schools plans on investing 12% of their budget towards closing the digital divide by investing in infrastructure, including cell towers, for wi-fi support. 
  5. Training staff on providing virtual or hybrid instruction with high quality materials for all students: While most districts across the country have been providing students with virtual or hybrid instruction, the ESSER funds will provide districts with an additional budget to train teachers to do this effectively. McKinsey recommends that “for hybrid learning, additional classroom aides could be needed to supervise students who cannot be in the same classroom as their teachers because of physical-distancing constraints. For remote instruction, “learning navigators” may be required to help students, teachers, and families use technology effectively” (Mckinsey, 2020). 

These are just a few examples to consider as districts decide how to allocate their ESSER funds effectively. While these suggestions are based on the guidance for ESSER spending, each state and district will have individual needs to address. Consider examining your existing data, selecting one prioritized student group, and identifying the highest impact learning acceleration strategy to support that student group. This might include a commitment to teaching on grade level, incorporating high dosage tutoring, providing additional time and individualized attention, and other evidence-based strategies. Additionally, consider learning acceleration strategies that utilize just-in-time interventions as you are developing your plans. Reflect and examine what worked and what didn’t work last year. Build upon the bright spots and brainstorm evidence-based solutions for areas you want to improve upon.

Insight has had the opportunity to work with a multitude of districts on preparing for the new school year with an equity lens. The greatest impacts for students have been the result of partner districts committing to teaching on grade level with a learning acceleration strategy and strategies that are evidence-based. We are here to offer our support and services to ensure that your district or school is ready to support their staff and students. 


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About Dr. Anissa Rodriguez Dickerman

Dr. Anissa Rodriguez Dickerman is the executive vice president and chief strategy officer for Insight Education Group. In this role, Anissa is responsible for establishing the long-term vision of the organization, providing guidance on organizational growth strategies, and leading partnership development efforts.

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