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Education Funding

To Get Billions in COVID-19 Aid, States Pledge Focus on Mental Health, Learning Recovery

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 14, 2021 | Corrected: June 15, 2021 4 min read
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Corrected: This item has been corrected to reflect that the state plans apply to $122 billion in American Rescue Plan relief for states and school districts.

States seeking access to billions in federally enacted coronavirus relief say they plan to prioritize the mental and emotional needs of students, support academic-recovery strategies such as intensive tutoring, and focus on services ranging from nutrition to payments to staff who participate in summer-learning programs.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that it is reviewing plans from 28 states detailing how they will use $122 billion in American Rescue Plan money to address the pandemic’s impacts and will do so before releasing that COVID-19 relief to states.

The documents provide insights into how states want to, and in some cases already have, taken steps to ensure safe in-person learning environments and address academic concerns, among other priorities.

In addition to “high-dosage tutoring” in both virtual and in-person formats, Texas plans to support extended-day and extended-school-year programs through its 20 regional service centers.

Michigan plans to use a behavioral health online platform to help monitor K-12 students with the goal of preventing youth suicides, addressing mental health issues, and facilitating communication between educators, parents, and providers. (The state says it will help school districts “gain consent” for these services through the platform.)

And New Jersey outlined its plans to coordinate relief funding with its regular, annual K-12 funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act to “help level the playing field between educators and families” in order to “personalize and target each student’s individual instructional needs.”

In March, the Education Department released about two-thirds—$81 billion—of the American Rescue Plan’s $122 billion in aid earmarked for states and school districts. However, the department held back the remaining Elementary and Secondary Emergency School Relief Fund. The agency stated that in order to access this $41 billion, states would have to submit plans detailing how they would support economically disadvantaged students, English-language learners, and others.

As of Monday, all the plans were “under review” by the department and none had received approval, according to its website. The plans were due June 7. The department said that the “vast majority” of states that did not submit plans by that date were constrained by requirements from their legislatures or state boards of education.

States can set aside up to 10 percent of the money for their own purposes to address the pandemic, but both states and districts must set aside a certain share of their money to address learning recovery.

The department said it was posting these plans to help parents and the general public better understand how schools are putting COVID-19 relief money to use. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the plans make it clear that the rescue package “is providing much-needed support to states and districts.” Some Republicans have criticized the amount of federal aid to schools and the pace at which it’s being put to use, although states have several years to use the money and can award or obligate it long before it is actually spent.

Some of the states are converting their set-aside into more dollars for districts. But the costs of the individual programs and their ultimate aims or measurable outcomes aren’t clearly identified in many cases, said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, which has tracked coronavirus spending.

"[There’s] a lot of doubling down on things the state has done before,” Roza said.

For example, earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, announced that public schools will not provide a remote-learning option to students in the fall. Murphy’s position, later made official by New Jersey, is represented in its American Rescue Plan submission.

“Research has made clear that the more time that a student spends outside of the classroom, the greater the risk of missed learning opportunities and of negative social, emotional, and mental health impacts,” New Jersey states in its submission for its share of the remaining American Rescue Plan funds.

Here are a few more snippets from state plans:

  • Connecticut, Cardona’s home state where he previously served as education commissioner, said in its plan that, “The highest priority for English-learners, based on the data available, is to increase the number of students learning in-person.” (Cardona has said he did not speak English as a child before he entered kindergarten.)
  • Georgia plans to use some of its relief money to create online Professional Learning Communities “facilitated by virtual specialists.”
  • New York state plans to expand facilities funding for charter schools that have increased their enrollment during the pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan is the third major coronavirus relief package enacted by Congress with funding for K-12 schools. The relief package requires states to allocate money for their districts no less than 60 days after receiving it from the federal government.

However, the issue of when and how districts can get COVID-19 relief money from states hasn’t proven to be totally cut and dried, as Texas’ experience with previous COVID-19 relief from the federal government demonstrates; districts said the state did not release federal coronavirus aid as quickly as it should have.

The law requires districts, in turn, to publish plans for resuming safe, in-person learning and the “continuity of services” within 30 days of receiving their allocated American Rescue Plan money.

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