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August 10, 2021  |  Lynn Schear

Finding effective K-12 strategies to secure billions in ESSER funds

The learning loss among K-12 students caused by the 2020 pandemic may resonate for years. Luckily, there has been an increase in funds to combat the challenges that online learning presented. Three rounds of legislative approval created the Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, better known as ESSER funding, which offers roughly $190 billion extra to public schools nationwide – about 12 times what schools would normally receive in federal funds.

The aim of the fund is to address delayed academic progress by offering tools to accelerate learning and reduce inequities the pandemic illuminated. Schools have to act fast, though: Federal dollars have to be spent in the next few years.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona calls the funds a step in the right direction in getting education back on track, especially in terms of equity.

"We also think it is past time for the federal government to make good on its commitment to students with disabilities and their families," Cardona said earlier this year.

States and school districts are responsible for how they choose to spend their money, but state leaders must outline their plans before they can receive the last third of the funds. These plans, which must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, reflect how the funds will be used to safely reopen schools and help students recover academically. So far, plans have been submitted by 44 states, and about half have been approved.

Addressing learning loss

K-12 schools witnessed a significant amount of learning loss due to lack of face-to-face instruction. To address this, at least 20% of the federal funds that districts receive must go toward “evidence-based interventions” addressing learning loss and interrupted learning. The loss was so vast that 97% of educators reported some degree of learning loss, the highest rates coming among students from low-income families.

Each district has been addressing learning loss differently, with some opting for online learning programs and summer learning and others hiring extra tutors. In addition, some districts are restructuring schedules and have turned study hall into a mandatory tutoring session. And states have been tasked with making sure that all students have access to help.

"There’s a big emphasis on equity in the American Rescue Plan," said Phyllis Jordan, associate director at the Georgetown University think tank FutureEd, in a recent interview with MCH. "States are asked to detail which are their most vulnerable groups, and how they’re going to address those issues. The most vulnerable groups, as you would suspect, are disadvantaged students, students from low-income families and students with disabilities."

Social and emotional learning

With kids returning to school exhibiting more anxiety and depression than ever before, many schools are using funding to bring more emotional support into schools. Hiring in-school counselors and social workers would address mental health problems that might not be dealt with at home.

In addition, a tiered approach to social and emotional support has been introduced in some plans. This approach splits students into groups depending on how much support they need to succeed. The first tier would rely on encouragement from teachers, the second would get support and educational guidance from an assigned mentor, and the third would require more extensive help, like that from a social worker.

"Software systems that can help schools identify students who need the most urgent emotional help will be particularly important as kids return to classrooms," Jordan said. "The school needs to sort out who’s who. Who needs a mentor or a helping hand, who needs to see a psychiatrist and so on."

EdTech and data collection

Another popular use of funds among districts is education technology programs. These online programs or apps are used to keep students on track while outside of the classroom, on their own time. Math programs are particularly common, as it was reported that students had the most difficulty keeping up with math throughout the pandemic.

"A lot of districts are using the money to improve their data-tracking systems, building early warning systems that tip you off to when students are falling behind on the track to graduation," Jordan said.

In addition to online programs, some districts are using technology for data collection. States are purchasing tracking tools and hardware and software, but how they use that technology is varied. For example, Connecticut is developing a research consortium to track how the pandemic has affected learning, so they can be better prepared. Nevada plans to use data to implement workforce tracking so they can fill tough spots within the district. Ultimately, the pandemic has highlighted a need for accessible, reliable data and technology among K-12 schools.

While the funding is beneficial to educators who have long been calling for more support, it provides a unique opportunity to businesses selling educational improvement products and data. By innovating their products to better solve learning loss, sellers can appeal to more districts.

Teacher shortages and capital projects

Almost all states are addressing the issue of staff loss during the pandemic, implementing systems that encourage current support staff to earn certification, issuing retention bonuses and raising salaries to attract STEM instructors.

Capital projects, as long as they can be completed within three years, are also a popular choice for spending, with an emphasis on new HVAC and air purification systems. It’s a trend that helps students and staff with more than preventing the spread of airborne disease. Kids learn better when they’re not cold, sweltering or breathing poor quality air.

Whatever a school district chooses to spend its money on, businesses will have an easier time selling their services if they can help buyers prove that they’re meeting legal requirements for funds to be released.

"A business would be wise to look at the law, look at the guidance, and see how their initiative or product fits into that. They should look at their state plans. Some have specific priorities," Jordan said.

FutureEd continues to provide guidance on proven strategies that can help schools – and the businesses that serve them. The coming months are vital, as decisions are made on which future “evidence-based interventions” to implement, with K-12 culture on the line.

ESSER funds give a unique opportunity to revolutionize the teaching world to better fit students and teachers during the times they need it the most.

"This is a significant budget supporting those who invest in the lives of our young people," Michigan Representative Brad Paquette said recently. "This is the first step toward even more future transformational positive change within our education system."

MCH can help you find the right strategies to reach districts nationwide. Reach out to find out more about leveraging K-12 data with MCH.



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