With deadlines approaching, there’s still time to use ESSER funds to address COVID-19’s impact on your district. Find out how you can use ESSER, from learning improvements to construction projects.

One of the areas hit hardest by COVID-19 has been education. To help, the government passed six economic relief bills. Three of the bills contained stimulus packages to be used by elementary and secondary schools that totaled nearly $190.5 billion. These packages are known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.

In this article, we dig into what ESSER funds are, how districts can use them, and how soon they have to be used. The good news is that there’s flexibility in your options. The bad news is that the deadlines to decide are quickly approaching.

What are ESSER funds?

The ESSER fund was originally established in March 2020, as part of the original Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, with funds totaling $13.2 billion. These funds were established for use by elementary and secondary schools to address issues that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In December 2020, Congress passed a second stimulus package, known as the Coronavirus Response and Relief and Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), which allocated an additional $54.3 billion toward the ESSER fund. This second stimulus is referred to as ESSER II.

The last round of ESSER funds was the largest at $122 billion. Part of the American Relief Plan, it’s known as ESSER III.

Who can use ESSER funds?

According to guidelines from the U.S Department of Education (DOE), the State Educational Agency (SEA) in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, can apply directly to the DOE for ESSER funds. 

An SEA is the agency primarily responsible for the state supervision of public elementary and secondary schools. Each Local Education Agency (LEA), usually a school district, must apply to their supervising SEA for awarded funds. Each SEA will subgrant ESSER funds based on the FY 2019 Title I, Part A Allocations. 

Each state may have different requirements for how to apply for ESSER, so check with your local department of education for clarification. 

Charter schools that are an LEA unto themselves can also receive an ESSER subgrant, like any other LEA. A charter school that isn’t an LEA may not receive a formula subgrant, but it may receive ESSER support through the LEA it’s a part of. 

The Bureau of Indian Education and the Outlying Areas are not eligible to receive ESSER formula funds. Congress provided funds separate from ESSER, including $850 million in the ARP Act, to provide funds to those entities.

How can ESSER funds be used?

Per the U.S. Department of Education, ESSER funds provide “you, and your local educational agencies, with emergency relief funds to address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools in [State].” 

That’s a pretty broad statement! LEAs have been given enormous flexibility in how they can use their allotted ESSER funds. COVID-19 presented each school district with unique challenges, so it’s no surprise that ESSER is being used in a variety of ways.

Digital teaching tools

The pandemic highlighted the challenge that many school districts face when it comes to online learning. Not everyone was prepared to teach over Zoom or Google Meet! Investing in digital teaching tools, such as tablets, computers, and expanded Internet infrastructure and technology, is one way for educators to capitalize on new learning environments and be prepared if another pandemic comes around. 

Increased support staff and educational employees

The healthcare industry isn’t the only one facing staff shortages and burnout. According to the Washington Post, school districts across the nation are facing severe staffing shortages in the 2022-2023 school year, ranging from the hundreds to the thousands. ESSER funds can be used toward hiring additional teaching staff, substitutes, or librarians and technology specialists to aid with online learning. 

School repairs for health and wellness

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the age and disrepair of many school buildings. ESSER funds can be used for repairs that help prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as replacing an aging HVAC system with an advanced filtration system to prevent the spread of germs and viruses. 

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Masking has still been proven as the most effective way to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. ESSER can be used to purchase PPE for educators, as well as hand sanitizers and other cleaning products to keep the spread of germs and bacteria down. 

Programs that track and reduce learning loss

According to the New York Times, school instructional time and actual learning took a big hit during the two years of the pandemic, so much so that 9-year-olds lost ground in math and reading, with scores falling by the largest margin in more than 30 years. Even the government sees this as the biggest challenge from COVID-19: ESSER III funds stipulate that at least 20% of allocated funds address learning loss

To find out how your state has allocated its ESSER funds so far, the National Conference of State Legislatures has an online tracker with more detailed information.

Can ESSER funds be used for college and career readiness solutions?

The loss of instructional time, coupled with challenging learning environments and overall uncertainty, made it easy for students to become disconnected and disengaged from their education over the last two years. This is a problem that schools struggle with nationwide, and intensified by the pandemic. 

The YouScience Discovery aptitude-based assessment and Precision Exams career and technical education (CTE) certifications are tools that can be used to help students reconnect with learning, and give them guidance that the pandemic may have derailed.

Discovery uses psychometrically-valid exercises to uncover natural talents. It helps students discover college and career pathways they may not have thought possible or even considered

With many schools focused strictly on keeping students in the classroom the past two years, career guidance may have been overlooked. Aptitude assessments can help students find a career path that’s right for them, instead of working in a job that doesn’t align with their natural aptitudes.

With millions of employees leaving the workforce or changing careers in The Great Resignation, finding a career path early is key to sustaining a stable workforce in the future. 

Precision Exams is another solution from YouScience that helps pandemic-challenged districts. This program offers students entry- to mid-level certifications in all National Career Clusters that give students tangible proof of their skills and knowledge. Certifications can help them enter the workforce or skip entry-level college courses, gain preferred hiring status, or earn a wage increase. 

When do ESSER funds need to be used? 

Because ESSER funds were issued in three separate packages, there are three deadlines for their use. An LEA needs to have a plan in place as to how they will use their funds by these dates:

  • ESSER (CARES, March 2020): September 30, 2021
  • ESSER II (CRRSA, December 2020): September 30, 2022
  • ESSER III (ARP ACT, 2021): September 30, 2023

All funds can be utilized for projects dating back to March 13, 2020. The DOE stated in the past that LEAs had four months past those dates to “liquidate” or spend ESSER funds, but a DOE letter issued May 13, 2022, granted an extension of up to 14 months, as supply chain issues, inflated construction costs, and third-party contractor timelines were making it difficult for districts to use their funds on time for construction projects. While the extension specifically addresses districts planning to use their funds for construction contracts, it does apply to all ESSER-funded activities.

How will your district use its ESSER funds?

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the challenges districts regularly face, not just when there’s a deadly virus circulating. Luckily, ESSER funds are available to help, and there are a number of ways they can be used to make education a little bit easier. 

With the deadlines to make a decision approaching, how will you use ESSER to make your district better?

Need more ideas for possible funding sources?

Here are 5 funding sources for college and career guidance.