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Guest Blog Post: Federal COVID-19 Relief for K-12

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By Shawn Gross, CEO and President of Digital Millennial Consulting

The American Rescue Plan creates one of the most significant recovery efforts by the federal government in K-12. How should you be thinking about spending those dollars?

In 2009, I had the privilege of serving on a committee under the Obama Administration. I never imagined that the core concepts addressed by the committee would be so important to maintaining our education system in the years to come. The committee was charged with developing continuity of learning plans leveraging technology for K-12 in response to a pandemic. Sadly, the worst scenarios discussed amongst this group became a reality in 2020. The magnitude of inequities and lack of preparedness by schools back then was of significant concern to the committee.  It was the hope that technology adoption for teaching and learning would soon become the norm. While it certainly has accelerated since 2009, it has not increased nearly enough to close the huge equity gaps.

Attempts to Rapidly Close Digital Inequities

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was asked to support some of our nation’s most vulnerable students in gaining access to technology. School systems that lacked comprehensive adoption of 1:1 (one computer for every student) initiatives were at the greatest disadvantage because instruction had to be delivered virtually. The most obvious gaps were the lack of computers and connectivity for students and teachers. Schools were also faced with a tall order regarding staff development to allow teachers to be confident with virtual teaching. Finally, school systems needed access to systems and tools for the delivery of remote teaching and learning. All of this (and much more) required access to speedy emergency funding relief.

Short Term Tactical Federal Relief

On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed by Congress. K-12 was allotted $13.5 billion to help address the educational needs of students due to building closures. The primary emphasis was around ensuring critical services and basic educational needs could be met. Those most vulnerable school systems began purchasing hardware, software and services to ensure instruction could be delivered virtually using technology. Since legislators and public health experts had no sense for how long schools would be closed, CARES relief only estimated a tiny fraction of all technology needs. In the following months, reality set in that school buildings could be closed until the end of 2022. Districts that were unable to close gaps related to Spring 2020 technology needs aggressively stepped up their efforts in the summer months. Superintendents and principals understood that printed learning packets were not sustainable. The 2020-21 school year could not begin until all students had computers and connectivity. Moreover, teacher preparedness and access to systems for the delivery of virtual learning were also necessary. Costs associated with computers during the summer months hit an all-time high because of U.S. sanctions imposed on China.  Chromebooks that were normally around $250 were selling for as much as $600.  Federal relief was critical by the time the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) was passed in December of 2020.  Congress appropriated approximately $13.2 billion for the ESSER I Fund through CARES and another $54.3 billion for ESSER II. Through this relief, a total of $67.5 billion in federal emergency relief for states and districts was made available to help schools during the height of the pandemic. CRRSA included all of the eligible categories under CARES necessary for schools to reopen. CARES and CRRSA funding helped districts cover short-term COVID-19 mitigation measures but fell short in providing relief for all of their obligations. In a recent survey by the Association of School Business Officials International, a membership organization for K-12 finance decision makers, 55% of respondents said the two federal stimulus packages in 2020 were not enough to meet their unprecedented financial needs during the pandemic.

Long Term Strategic Federal Relief

On March 11, 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (H.R. 1319) into law. The $1.9 trillion package, based on President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, was intended to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including public health and economic impacts. $123 billion was allocated to K-12 for assistance to safely reopen schools and address the unprecedented amount of learning loss as a result of the pandemic. ARP required that schools allocate at least 20% of resources toward addressing these losses through evidence-based interventions. Learning loss amongst students attending the traditional 180 days of school from 20 states was examined in a study by the U.S. Department of Education.

The study found an average loss of learning of 64% for reading, equivalent to a student not attending school for 116 days of reading instruction. With math, the worst-case scenario was 232 days of learning loss. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “remaining LEA funds may be used for a wide range of activities to address needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic, including any activity authorized by the ESEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), or Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins CTE). Funds can be used to cover retroactive expenditures dating back to March 13, 2020 and prospective obligations ending by September 30, 2024” (includes the Tyding Amendment period). State legislatures or departments of education cannot limit how localities use the money, as long as the uses are within the bounds of the federal law. This gives districts a tremendous amount of freedom in determining how best to allocate these precious resources.

About the author

Shawn Gross is a former education senior policy advisor in the US Senate and House of Representatives. Additionally, Shawn served as a member of the Obama Administration’s task force on continuity of learning in response to school closures as a result of a pandemic. He has worked with over 200 districts across 23 states to help leadership maximize access to federal funding opportunities for edtech. Shawn is the CEO and president of Digital Millennial Consulting and is based in Arlington, Virginia.

Read Shawn’s companion blog post entitled “Investments in Technology” to discover optimal methods through which you can identify fund-covered EdTech solutions.