Education Funding Opinion

How You Can Avoid Missing Out on COVID Relief Money

The 5 funding priorities for ESSER funds that districts can pursue
By Erin Covington — April 14, 2022 3 min read
Illustration of cash dangling from line and hand trying to grasp it.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Schools are being offered a once-in-a-lifetime windfall of federal money to recover from the pandemic, but weak management and labor shortages mean billions may go unclaimed and unspent.

In 2020 and 2021, Congress passed a series of stimulus bills that provide $190 billion—the equivalent of $3,500 per public school student—to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

The money comes with a remarkable lack of strings on how it can be spent, but there’s one big catch: Schools must use it or lose it by September 2024.

Illustration of a person buried under paperwork
Fanatic Studio/Getty

It’s a race against the clock, and the clock may be winning. If current trends continue, I estimate about 1 of every 10 dollars, or as much as $20 billion, could return unused to federal coffers. That would be bad news for schools. It also would require some difficult explanations from district leaders and school board members to voters on why they passed up such a valuable funding opportunity.

There is no question that students need the help that money can buy. After months of remote learning, teacher burnout, and technological woes, school districts are reporting widening educational disparities. On top of those COVID-related issues, schools face many other long-term funding problems, which have led to perennial shortages of classroom supplies, substandard ventilation systems, and basic maintenance problems such as leaky roofs.

Every dollar in that ESSER fund can be used to boost academic achievement. Unfortunately, some money isn’t.

In Wisconsin, one school district spent $1.6 million on synthetic turf fields for football, baseball, and softball. A Kentucky school board allocated $1 million to resurface two outdoor running tracks. Another district bought each student two computer tablets—one for school and one for home.

These kinds of spending abuses threaten to ruin goodwill in Congress—and among school communities—for the well-intentioned ESSER program.

In some ways, it’s a big ask for schools to manage so much money so quickly. School boards often are elected volunteer parents who are not experts on the intricacies of federal funding requirements.

At the same time, school districts face the same labor shortages that hamstring the rest of the economy. It’s not easy to find workers to fix HVAC systems or plumbing leaks or peeling paint in any building in America today, much less in crowded schools.

And with competitive-bidding processes that require public advertising and a formal appeals process, government construction contracts will never be fast turnarounds.

See Also

A group of people on a see-saw balance money and education
Imam Fathoni/iStock
Budget & Finance Opinion 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Spending COVID-Relief Funds
Marguerite Roza, December 1, 2021
5 min read

Still, ESSER money is a once-in-a-generation chance to fix school shortcomings, and it would be a heartbreak to waste it. Instead of football fields, schools should be looking to fund these kinds of improvements with ESSER money:

1. Targeted tutoring. Extra help for students outside regular classes has been shown to have a significant impact on academic outcomes. This is one of the best uses of ESSER funds and a good way to address learning gaps that have grown during the pandemic.

2. Pre-K program funding. Expanding pre-K programs to reach younger children and lower-income families is another high-value use of funds that pays long-term dividends in both academic performance and equity. One key here is to identify a sustainable funding source for the years after ESSER funding ends.

3. Teacher recruitment and retention. Bonuses and raises will help schools hold on to teachers, who have faced unprecedented stress during the pandemic. One-time financial incentives, timed to persuade teachers to stay for another school year, can be a smart use of funds. But these investments need to be made with eyes wide open about their impact on districts’ long-term cost structure after the temporary funding ends in 2024.

4. Baseline academic tests. Many schools shut down testing over the pandemic, meaning they have no accurate gauge of their students’ current academic level. How can you target resources if you don’t know who or what needs help? Devoting some emergency funds to running a districtwide baseline assessment is a good idea.

5. Capital investments. Investing in facility repairs and improvements can be valuable but represents a difficult trade-off against academic interventions. The solution is to first invest in a facilities-conditions assessment that can enable leaders to prioritize projects.

The federal funding clock is ticking. While not every school and district has the same funding needs, these examples offer an idea of the kinds of investment that can yield better, more sustainable results. Students and school staff have been through so much during this pandemic. We owe it to them to make the best use of ESSER money.

Related Tags:


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Families & the Community Webinar
How Whole-Child Student Data Can Strengthen Family Connections
Learn how district leaders can use these actionable strategies to increase family engagement in their student’s education and boost their academic achievement.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
The School to Workforce Gap: How Are Schools Setting Students Up For Life & Lifestyle Success?
Hear from education and business leaders on how schools are preparing students for their leap into the workforce.
Content provided by Find Your Grind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Funding Schools Need Billions More to Make Up for Lost Learning Time, Researchers Argue
The projected price tag far exceeds ESSER aid already provided to help students recover from the pandemic.
5 min read
A man standing on the edge of a one dollar bill that is folded downward to look like a funding cliff.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Education Funding EPA Doubles Aid for Electric, Natural Gas-Powered School Buses, Citing High Demand
The $965 million in funding helps schools replace existing diesel buses with zero- and low-emissions alternatives.
2 min read
A row of flat-front yellow school buses with green bumpers are parked in front of white electric charging units.
Stockton Unified School District's new electric bus fleet sits parked in front of charging stations.
Business Wire via AP
Education Funding Districts Steer Federal Teacher-Quality Funding Into Recruitment, Retention
Efforts to recruit teachers and create "grow your own" programs are in; class-size reduction and teacher evaluation are out.
5 min read
Blurred view of the back of students in a classroom with their hands raised answering to a female teacher
Education Funding In Their Own Words This Superintendent's Tiny, Rural District Got No COVID Aid. Here's Why That Hurts
The aid formula left Long Lake, N.Y., out of the mix. The superintendent worries that could happen for other kinds of aid in the future.
3 min read
Long Lake Superintendent Noelle Short in front of Long Lake Central School in Long Lake, N.Y., on Sept. 1, 2022.
Noelle Short is the superintendent of a single-school district in upstate New York with fewer than 100 students.
Heather Ainsworth for Education Week