Federal officials gave six states and the District of Columbia the greenlight Wednesday to spend billions of dollars in K-12 relief aid, and also outlined the application process for a separate fund targeted toward the needs of students experiencing homelessness.
The U.S. Department of Education approved the first wave of states’ K-12 relief plans to spend the remaining portions of the American Rescue Plan’s $122 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER. And, alongside officials from the White House, Education Department officials detailed promising practices for how states plan to use that money, an unprecedented influx of aid with a broad range of allowable uses.
“What’s most important is that each of these states is working hard to effectively and thoughtfully welcome their students back in the fall,” Deputy Education Secretary Cindy Marten said in a press call with reporters in advance of the announcement.
The surge of money comes as schools face a complex landscape of urgent needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic, including unprecedented interruptions in instruction, difficulties assessing student learning progress, and concerns about students’ mental health and emotional well-being.
Federal officials had released about two thirds of the ESSER aid, about $81 billion, in March. To get the remaining funding, states had to seek input from a wide range of groups including members of the public, parents, educators, and advocates for students of color and students with disabilities.
Funds could be used for everything from targeted tutoring efforts and summer learning to professional development and supplies to reopen classrooms. The Education Department posted 28 states’ plans in June as it began to review the applications. To date, 40 states have submitted plans, the agency said Tuesday.
Educators, policymakers, and advocacy organizations have debated for months the most effective ways for schools to target the aid. The federal agency has weighed in through webinars and the creation of handbooks outlining promising strategies and resources.
On Wednesday, federal officials approved plans for Arkansas, Massachusetts, Texas, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and the District of Columbia, that detailed how they would spend remaining relief funds and continue some efforts that are already in place.
On a call with reporters Tuesday, Utah State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson outlined her state’s plan, which includes competitive grants to school districts and community organizations to provide for after-school and summer learning programs. The state also plans to do targeted professional development on the science of reading for educators who work with kindergarten through 2nd grade students who are English-language learners and students from low-income households.
“We can start to accelerate learning for students most impacted and create a more engaged student body heading into the fall,” Dickson said.
Among the practices the Education Department spotlighted from other states:
- Arkansas plans to recruit and train tutors for a “tutoring corps” to “enhance learning experiences of students due to loss of instructional time and address gaps in foundational skills in mathematics and literacy.”
- The District of Columbia will provide grants to community organizations to help with summer learning efforts.
- Texas plans to offer “high-dosage tutoring, high-quality instructional materials, and job-embedded professional learning to help address the academic impact of lost instructional time.”
- South Dakota will use some of its funding to focus on student engagement efforts that target students who may have grown disconnected from their schools over the past year.
- Massachusetts plans a multiyear summer “acceleration academy” that will serve about 50,000 students each year.
- Rhode Island will expand its summer course offerings, even allowing students to take Advanced Placement classes during the summer months.
Ian Rosenblum, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs at the Education Department, said the agency has also been encouraged by states’ plans to use relief funding for teacher and student vaccination efforts.
The agency has corresponded with some states that have not yet had their plans approved about conditions like seeking adequate public input, detailing plans to meet the needs of students most effected by the pandemic, and ensuring that their proposals fall under allowable uses for the aid, Rosenblum said.
For example, federal officials recently questioned Florida’s plan to provide broad, $1,000 teacher bonuses, the Associated Press reported.
Aid for homeless students
On Tuesday, officials outlined the process for states to secure the remaining $600 million in relief aid targeted toward students experiencing homelessness, a major concern for educators during the pandemic. That aid, $800 million in total, was included in the American Rescue Plan in the final phases of debate following efforts by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va..
“The COVID-19 pandemic made this heartbreaking and dire issue much worse for many of our families and children in need,” Manchin said in a statement. “Since the pandemic kept most students at home, schools have struggled to track students experiencing homelessness.”
Educators have said remote learning and economic uncertainty have made it difficult to identify students facing housing insecurity. Some families who newly qualify for homeless assistance at schools may not be aware of the array of federal programs, they said.
School homelessness service coordinators also pushed federal officials to allow them to use the new aid for expenses not currently covered by regular homeless student programs, including things like car repairs for families to transport their children to school.
The Education Department previously released about $200 million on an expedited basis so schools could get to work identifying homeless students and placing them in summer learning programs. To secure the remaining aid, states must submit applications to distribute funds using a formula that incorporates a school district’s allocation under Title I—a federal program targeted at disadvantaged students—and the number of identified homeless children and youth in either the 2018-19 or 2019-20 school year, whichever number is greater. They must also submit a plan within 60 days that outlines how they will use the funds.
Allowable uses for the remaining homeless student aid largely follow the guidelines of the existing McKinney-Vento program for homeless students. Schools may also use the funds for “any expenses necessary to facilitate the identification, enrollment, retention, or educational success of homeless children and youth in order to enable homeless children and youth to attend school and participate fully in school activities,” a notification says.