School districts should think creatively but responsibly when planning to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds over the next several years in order to show appropriators that the money allocated was justified, recommended a panel of speakers in a Tuesday session during the annual ISTE conference.
Investments in ed tech, for example, could include new programs that extend and enhance core subject learning, as well as exposure to the arts, in ways that are engaging for students, speakers said.
School system leaders are currently weighing the best ways to spend nearly $200 billion in federal aid, knowing there is much pressure for transparency and results. “If we don't use these funds well right now, then we won't see a lot more coming down the pipe,” said speaker Chris Rush, director of educational technology at the U.S Department of Education.
“Given the immensely important role that technology played during COVID-19 to ensure continuous and engaging learning, it is safe to say that if you're wondering if ed tech is an allowable use under these flexible funds, I would say absolutely yes,” said panelist Ally Talcott, principal and co-owner of Step Up Advocacy.
Talcott pointed out most of the money approved in the three separate relief bills will go to district initiatives, and there are varying deadlines for both obligating and spending the funds.
Some have raised concerns school systems won’t be able to use all the relief funds before the deadlines, she said.
“It is a lot of money, but this is the whole point of having these conversations is there are really smart ways to actually make use of these investments, to collect the positive anecdotes and the data… so that next time something like this happens — and, again, hopefully never — but we can justify that the amount Congress gave us was well spent,” Talcott said.
One area of investment the speakers highlighted was the support of teachers’ use of technology to accelerate student learning. Dustin Loehr, director of arts education and Title IV-A with the Arizona Department of Education, said the state has been encouraging districts to consider sustainable teacher supports, such as stipends for teacher leaders of technology and teacher trainers of technology. The state is also planning ways the relief funding can be braided with other federal appropriations to leverage the funds for incentives for teachers, Loehr said.
The speakers also urged districts to budget for programs that benefit the whole child, taking academic and social-emotional growth, as well as equitable services, into consideration. Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, suggested using summer learning programs to test out new technology that expands engaging learning opportunities for students. Partnering with local government agencies, organizations, businesses and other entities can widen a district’s capacity to support more students, he said.
Teachers, students and families should also be part of the funding decision-making regarding ed tech investments, the panelists said. Many education stakeholders are eager to ensure the historic levels of funds are used wisely, creatively and have an impact, they said.
“I think it might be like shooting for the stars and celebrating if you actually land on the mountaintop,” Rush said.