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Education Funding

Schools Can Use COVID-19 Relief Money for Vaccinations and Teacher Bonuses, Feds Say

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 26, 2021 3 min read
East Hartford High School senior Sudeen Pryce, right, center, receives support from classmate Alexia Phipps, left, East Hartford High School Intervention Coordinator Mark Brown, second from left, and EMT Katrinna Greene, top right, of Manchester, as RN Kaylee Cruz of Bristol administers the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine to Pryce at a mass vaccination site at Pratt & Whitney Runway in East Hartford, Conn. on April 26, 2021.

School districts can use money from the American Rescue Plan and other COVID-19 aid packages to provide “premium pay” to educators—provided that it’s “reasonable” and consistent with federal and other requirements—as well as to prevent layoffs, new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education states.

The aid can also be used to pay for vaccinations, as well as outreach efforts related to the COVID-19 vaccines, the guidance document says.

The fact sheet released by the department on May 26 also says that state lawmakers cannot limit how districts use the biggest pot of money under those relief laws. But it does say that state education departments can restrict how much money districts can use on administration, as part of their oversight of specific portions of COVID-19 aid.

The department also says that relief money for school districts in three federal relief bills can be used to improve heating, ventilation, and other projects that would help schools’ air quality. “Renovation or remodeling activities that are necessary for an LEA to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19 would be permissible,” the department says.

The document, which is designed to address frequently asked questions about coronavirus relief, comes as states and school districts make plans for how to use coronavirus relief money. Under three relief packages, K-12 schools have received close to $200 billion in direct aid, or nearly double what they received under the 2009 stimulus that Congress passed in response to the Great Recession.

The new Biden administration guidance, which is nonbinding, applies to the three relief bills signed into law in March 2020, December 2020, and March of this year. The guidance covers Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds for use by state and local education agencies, as well as Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds.

The speed at which states have moved federal relief money along to districts has varied. Schools are dealing with significant turmoil and uncertainty when it comes to planning how to use coronavirus relief and planning their budgets in general. The pandemic has also had a notable impact on special education and infrastructure, among other big-ticket budget issues for school leaders.

Vaccinations, masks, coronavirus testing and more

The guidance says that the relief packages’ ESSER and GEER money can be used to provide COVID-19 vaccinations for eligible students and staff, as well as pay for coronavirus testing, personal protective equipment, and things like hand sanitizer and masks.

“Allowable vaccination outreach efforts in general could include activities to create awareness and build confidence, facilitate clinics, and provide incentives such as paid time off for staff to get vaccinated,” the guidance goes on to say.

The extent to which families will have their children in K-12 schools vaccinated against the coronavirus remains a major concern for educators. Although the vaccine is becoming increasingly available to school-age children, it’s unlikely states will require them to get the vaccine, experts have told Education Week.

Masking policies, meanwhile, have continued to be a knotty problem for education officials.

Governor’s relief funds can also be used for preschool services, according to the guidance, but governors aren’t required to spread the money around to all the entities, like districts and colleges and universities, that are eligible for the money.

When it comes to “premium pay” (such as teacher bonuses), the guidance says that relief funds can be used for that purpose “pursuant to an established plan.” It must also be “consistent with applicable collective bargaining agreements.” There’s debate about the effectiveness of offering bonuses to educators who might be ground down by the pandemic.

Lawmakers in at least one state, Florida, have agreed to provide one-time $1,000 bonuses to teachers and principals using federal coronavirus relief money for education.

The guidance also says that federal relief money can be used to provide job training, postsecondary counseling, and other services to students who graduated last year or are due to graduate this year but who “have not yet successfully transitioned to college or careers.”

That interpretation of the aid packages could be especially helpful to students in special education programs whose access to services was disrupted by the pandemic and who are close to aging out of them.

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