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Miguel Cardona Unveils Summer Learning Partnership, Releases Some COVID-19 Aid

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 24, 2021 4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., on March 3.

The U.S. Department of Education will join governors and state education chiefs to help create plans for summer learning and enrichment programs serving students hurt most by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Summer Learning & Enrichment Collaborative will assist states, school districts, and others in planning how to use new relief funds, including the $1.2 billion earmarked for summer enrichment in the American Rescue Plan, the COVID-19 relief package signed by President Joe Biden earlier this month. (That earmark represents 1 percent of the package’s K-12 education aid.) The partnership, which includes the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, is set to launch in April.

The department announced the new summer collaborative ahead of the agency’s National School Reopening Summit on Wednesday, an event highlighting how schools can reopen safely for in-person learning this year and next. The agency also announced that Cardona would go on a “school reopening tour” in the weeks following the summit.

Also, in advance of the summit, the department announced the release of $81 billion in American Rescue Plan K-12 funds to states. That represents about two-thirds of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding for states and school districts.

A department letter to states about the release of this money says that in order to access the remaining third of their allotted ESSER money, states must submit a plan describing how “ESSER funds will be used to safely return students to in-person instruction, maximize in-person instruction time, operate schools, and meet the needs of students, and that addresses other requirements” of the relief package.

The American Rescue Plan does not explicitly say that states must develop and submit plans to resume and maximize in-person learning in order to access any funding. However, many of the allowable uses for the money deal with reopening school buildings, and lawmakers spoke frequently about how the package would help get students back into classrooms. Cardona and President Joe Biden have emphasized the importance of schools resuming traditional instruction.

When Congress debated the American Rescue Plan earlier this year, some lawmakers supported amending the legislation to somehow make additional federal K-12 relief contingent on schools resuming face-to-face instruction. But these efforts failed.

All the same, there’s no authority in the law for the department to ultimately withhold funds due to dissatisfaction about plans for in-person learning. States won’t necessarily have to be very detailed in additional information they submit to access the remaining funds. And it’s common for states to submit applications to access federal aid agreeing to certain conditions.

The Education Department says it plans to make an application for the remaining funds available next month. Separately, the American Rescue Plan requires school districts to publish plans to resume in-person learning within 30 days of receiving aid.

The rescue package requires states to award districts their share of the funds within 60 days of getting it from the Education Department. In total, states and school districts are getting roughly $122 billion in ESSER.

Educators are grappling with summer strategies

What to do during the summer months has quickly become one of the biggest priorities for education officials and others.

“The Collaborative will build and deepen partnerships across states, districts, and among educators, parents, philanthropy, and nonprofit partners to scale up and sustain successful programs,” the department said in a statement announcing the partnership.

Although the department has put a focus on how schools and other groups can help students this summer, some districts have already set plans for the warmer months in motion. And some states are taking action: In North Carolina, for example, state lawmakers have advanced a bill requiring to provide 30 days of summer learning. Attendance is one of several concerns for educators, however, when it comes to summer school programs.

Districts are considering a range of approaches for the summer and beyond, from virtual tutoring and extending the 2020-21 school year, to increasing access to highly-rated teachers and adding days to the school calendar in the 2021-22 academic year.

Recent studies have shown that approaches such as tutoring can be effective, although they can prove quite expensive. Researchers have also looked at how extended-learning academies, utilizing small class sizes and teachers who passed a competitive application process, can help students.

The American Rescue Plan funding doesn’t limit summer learning funding to traditional approaches like summer school. Indeed, some share the belief of Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that recreation and enrichment, not academics, should be the priority for many students this summer after a difficult year for children, parents, and educators. Murphy lobbied for dedicated summer-enrichment aid to be included in the American Rescue Plan, and recently requested that the Education Department release guidance for summer programs.

Data released by the department on Wednesday about how students are learning during the pandemic found that as of January, 43 percent of 4th graders and 48 percent of 8th graders were learning full time from home. But there are also very large disparities in the amount of live teaching different students are getting every day. Biden has said he wants most K-8 schools open and providing in-person learning five days a week by April 30, but his administration’s expectations on this front have shifted and led to backlash.

For more state-by-state information on the $81 billion awarded to states Wednesday, see the chart below.

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