This article is the second installment of Expectations for ESSER, a series examining the implications of the federal government’s one-time, historic infusion of flexible funding to triage projects designed to blunt the impact of COVID-19 on schools. For the full series, click here.

Of the federal emergency funding packages designed to help K-12 schools recover from pandemic setbacks, the American Rescue Plan's $121.9 billion lifeline holds the most promise of fixing long-standing inequities and underinvestment in education — as well as providing critical academic interventions, say educators and advocates.

Money began reaching states within weeks of ARP becoming law in March 2021. And state and local plans for ARP spending show just how ambitious school reforms can be.

Arizona, for instance, is using part of its $2.6 billion ARP allocation to partner with the state's three public flagship universities to build teacher recruitment and retention efforts and launch professional learning academies to add administrator pipelines for schools and districts. In Idaho, a portion of the state's $440 million will be spent on creating or expanding local community school models to coordinate academic, mental health, nutrition and other services.

At the district level, the flexibility of ARP funding is allowing school systems to be creative while addressing critical learning and infrastructure needs and boosting supports for historically underserved students. 

"That's something that we're hearing from our members … that every spending strategy that they're looking at with these extra funds, they're trying to look at it through an equity lens," said Elleka Yost, director of advocacy for the Association of School Business Officials International.

Much of the equity focus at the local level is using these significant federal funds to prevent students from low-income families, students of color, students with disabilities and other student subgroups from falling further behind — and even to close achievement gaps.

Students use a new science curriculum purchased with ESSER funding at Catahoula Parish Schools, Louisiana, in 2022.
Permission granted by Christi Lofton

Not surprisingly, a review from data services firm Burbio shows one of the largest areas of investment is programs to support learning recovery, including summer programing, tutoring, student assessments and credit recovery. The most current Burbio data is based on 5,000 district ARP spending plans covering about 74% of the nation's students. 

Burbio collects ARP spending data by manually reviewing district websites and other publicly posted material. It has tabulated over $83 billion in planned spending. The company is also integrating actual spending data into its database.

District ARP planned spending targeted for academic intervention

Staffing and facilities are other large pockets of investments.

Using Burbio's data, FutureEd at Georgetown University, an independent think tank, estimates 60% of districts nationwide will spend part of their ARP funding on summer learning, or on a combination of summer learning and after-school programs. The ARP legislation required districts to dedicate at least 20% of funds on addressing learning loss.

Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Dallas Independent School District in Texas, said without the $784.6 million in federal relief money the district received from ARP and the second Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding allocation — known as ESSER II — it would have been difficult to make so many educational improvements in such a short time frame.

Those improvements include a $75 million plan for year-round school at 46 campuses and $13.1 million to extend the school day at 60 of the district's struggling schools, according to Hinojosa and his district's spending plans. ARP funding is also going toward tutoring, dyslexia and Section 504 interventionists, tiered supports, reading academies and more.

The district serves 153,861 students across 230 schools, according to its website.

The emergency funding has been "a godsend to us," said Hinojosa, who will serve as emeritus superintendent until December after announcing his retirement this year. "So we're doing all those things at the same time, and we'll see how that helps us accelerate learning. But it would have been next to impossible if we didn't have those additional resources to do any of those things."

Investing in ed tech post-pandemic

Perhaps when the pandemic is a distant memory and one considers how COVID-19 permanently changed K-12, what will come to mind first is the significant impact ed tech had on student learning and equitable opportunities.

In retrospect the pandemic may be marked as the moment of K-12 modernization because of the urgent and widespread efforts to get students their own laptops, ensure reliable WiFi connections and train teachers to use learning platforms and other education apps.

A 2022 Consortium for School Networking national survey, conducted in January and February of more than 1,500 K-12 IT leaders, found that 83% of high schools, 86% of middle schools and 80% of grades 3-5 have 1:1 device programs. That's compared to rates of 66% in high school, 69% in middle school and 43% in K-5 in 2020.

Many say this realization of K-12 modernization is hard to envision now in the third school year of disrupted learning. Despite the big push to get students their own devices and secure internet connections over the past few years, student achievement growth levels have not kept pace with pre-pandemic rates.

Some parents and politicians have called online learning due to school closures a failure because of student learning loss. There were an abundance of stories of connection frustrations, low student online engagement and Zoom fatigue.

But as time passes — and as long as school systems continue to invest in 1:1 device programs and provide strong online learning opportunities, and communities make commitments for reliable, high speed internet — the benefits for generations of students will be realized, said Mike Magee, former CEO of Chiefs for Change, an organization of state and local education leaders.

"If you want that closing of the digital divide to be sustainable and permanent, that requires major investments and infrastructure," said Magee, who left CFC in May to become president of Minerva University, a private, nonprofit university that offers live, video-based classes.

In an analysis of American Rescue Plan funding for K-12 technology, the three most popular spending categories are for student mobile devices, technology infrastructure and hardware, and instructional technology, according to statistics collected by data firm Burbio. The data covers 4,370 districts representing 69% of the U.S. student enrollment and $79.5 billion in ARP funding.

Investing in online learning does not mean replacing in-person learning, Magee said. It means a school may be able to offer a variety of advanced placement and world language courses students could take virtually. It also means students whose families cannot afford a computer could use their school-issued device to complete homework or connect with other students to organize club activities.

He adds that virtual platforms have opened up opportunities for telehealth, online mentoring for teachers and remote tutoring for students, particularly in places where in-person support doesn't exist.

"I believe it is going to have major generational effects," Magee said. "If school leaders do their job, [future generations of students] are going to have opportunities that this generation of students has not had."

Across the state in Odessa, Ector County ISD dedicated $6.1 million of its $55.9 million ARP funding for individualized virtual tutoring this school year, serving 6,000 of its 32,000 students. 

The district is working with several tutoring companies that are paid based upon how much academic growth participating students experience over time. An early pilot of 40 students working with one company showed impressive results, so the district scaled up the model, said Superintendent Scott Muri.

This outcomes-based finance model is not typically used in K-12 education, but perhaps it should be considered more, Muri said. "It's simply taking a strategy that was used effectively in the business world and applying it to education, and it's working for us in a pretty powerful way."

A student in Texas' Ector County Independent School District can connect to high-speed broadband internet at home due to a community partnership with SpaceX's Starlink system.
Permission granted by Michael Adkins

Planning for ESSER deadlines

Improving school facilities is another significant pocket of ARP spending. According to FutureEd's analysis of Burbio data, more than half of school districts will use federal emergency dollars to enhance heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. FutureEd noted school systems are making other facility upgrades, including renovations and playground improvements, as well as transportation investments.

A 2020 Government Accountability Office report found an estimated 41% of districts nationwide needed to update or replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in at least half their schools. GAO researchers said in about half of districts, the primary source of money for school facilities came from local allocations, such as property taxes. 

High-poverty districts more commonly relied on state funding to address facility needs than did low-poverty districts.

The 4,800-student Williamsport Area School District in Pennsylvania will use $12.5 million of its $32 million in total ESSER funding to renovate Lycoming Valley Intermediate School, said Wanda Erb, the district's business administrator. 

The project includes a complete redesign of the school's open classroom concept that will add doors and walls for separate learning spaces. District leaders discussed academic and air quality benefits of separate classrooms before COVID-19, but the ESSER funding helped propel the project forward.

"It's an opportune time to take advantage of it," said Erb, adding the school's open classroom design has raised complaints for many years.

ESSER highlights from Williamsport Area School District

Most of the Pennsylvania school system’s allocation will go toward facilities improvements.

The renovation project, which will cost $30 million to $35 million and include purchases of educational materials, is currently in the architectural design phase. Erb said if the project's timeline goes as planned, the ESSER funding should be spent by September 2024, the deadline Congress set for using ARP dollars.

But that's if the project goes as planned.

"The concerns that we have over this project are supply chain issues, as well as the increased costs and the ability [to find] labor because labor has also been an issue," said Erb, who is also a board director of the Association of School Business Officials International.

Williamsport is not alone. Other districts across the country are nervously watching their projects' schedules and the impending obligation 2024 deadline. 

In a survey conducted earlier this year by the school business officials group, more than one-third of school district finance leader respondents said labor shortages and supply chain issues are preventing them from spending ESSER funds quickly

The survey also found one in five districts expressed concern about tight timelines for spending ESSER funding on longer-term projects like facility upgrades.

The group recieved survey responses from more than 150 school districts across 35 states.

In January, 30 education organizations wrote the U.S. Department of Education seeking an extension to September 2026 of the ARP obligation deadline for school construction and infrastructure improvements. 

The Education Department, however, cannot move the deadline. Only Congress can do that. But the Ed Department said last month it would consider school district requests for up to an 18-month extension for spending ESSER I, II and III funds. 

Extensions would be considered based on specific facts and circumstances, and longer extensions may be considered for “extraordinary circumstances," according to a letter from the department to Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. AASA was one of the organizations pushing for more time to spend ESSER dollars.

AASA has said it will continue asking Congress to delay the obligation deadline for ARP funds. 

Explaining ESSER

What: The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund combines three allocations approved by Congress in 2020 and 2021, known as ESSER I, II and III. ESSER III is also known as the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

How Much: ESSER's pre-K-12 funding adds up to $189.5 billion. The ESSER I allocation is $13.2 billion. ESSER II totals $54.3 billion, and ESSER III is the largest pandemic education assistance package at $122 billion. In addition, Congress set aside a total of $7 billion for pandemic relief for schools through the Governor's Emergency Education Relief fund, or GEER.

When: Obligation deadlines set by Congress differ for each of the ESSER allocations. For ESSER I, schools must commit to spending projects by Sept. 30, 2022. For ESSER II, the deadline is Sept. 30, 2023, and for ESSER III, it's Sept. 30, 2024. The funds must be liquidated — or spent — within 120 calendar days after those dates. The U.S. Department of Education, however, is allowing an 18-month spending extension for districts for each of the ESSER allocations based on "specific facts and circumstances."

Students celebrate their January 2022 win of the Golden Garment, an award for best school spirit at Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls, Washington.
Permission granted by Brent Osborn

Small but impactful investments

A district's multi-million dollar ESSER investment in summer programming or new HVAC systems in all its schools may attract most of the attention of those watching spending priorities and returns on investments — but sometimes smaller expenditures yield big impacts, too.

At Lakeside High School in the Nine Mile Falls School District in Washington, it just took a pair of yellow underwear and $10,000 in private grant funding to build back school spirit that had been missing during the pandemic, as well as to encourage student engagement in extracurricular activities.

I love to see them just enjoy high school the way that it should be and for the district to rally together providing any opportunity for them just to be a kid is huge.

Ryan Arnold

Assistant principal at Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls, Washington

A Golden Garment competition every January between Lakeside and Freeman high schools is part spirit competition and part girls' and boys’ basketball games. Each school gets points for fundraising, crowd spirit, loudness and participation, said Ryan Arnold, assistant principal of Lakeside. The competition was canceled in 2021 due to COVID-19. 

Although Lakeside, a 9th-12th grade school, lost the basketball games this year, the school won the trophy — a framed pair of "golden" underwear. That moment helped restore a sense of normalcy and togetherness, said Arnold.

"I love to see them just enjoy high school the way that it should be," he said. "And for the district to rally together providing any opportunity for them just to be a kid is huge."

ESSER funding did not directly support the school's spirit and student engagement efforts, but having the federal funds allowed the school a bit of freedom to use the grant funding for noncritical activities like the Golden Garment competition and save ESSER money for more pressing needs. 

"We just tried to do everything we could to keep giving kids the opportunities that they've been missing," said Lakeside Principal Brent Osborn, especially since the school is experiencing more mental health issues than ever before. ESSER funds have supported the hiring of more mental health experts in the district, he said. 

Student engagement is a districtwide effort in the 1,316-student Nine Mile Falls district. Lakeside High School hit its goal of 80% of student engagement. The middle school has seen a higher participation rate in athletics and children at the two elementary schools are more focused on fun and engaging activities like field trips and active learning programs, said Claire Olson, Nine Mile Falls School District's executive director of business.

ESSER highlights from Nine Mile Falls School District

Spending in this Washington school district includes upgrades to HVAC systems.

Plans for the district's total $5.6 million ESSER allocations include $1.4 million for HVAC renovations and repairs, $625,000 for learning recovery staff and professional development, $20,000 in library books for the district's two elementary schools, and several other initiatives. 

Even when each dollar has been carefully planned to accommodate large and small projects, states and districts have had to adjust strategies as COVID-19’s delta and omicron variants forced schools to temporarily close or quarantine staff and students.

Erb, from Williamsport Area schools, said her district used $30,000 to $40,000 in ESSER funding for a bus service to take students home who became symptomatic at school.

"Local leaders have to adapt on the fly," said Yost, of the school business officials group.

For example, districts that may have set aside money for learning recovery had to take funds from there to pay for more masks and COVID-19 tests.

"Anytime you have adjustments like that, there are expenses that go with that," Yost said.

Investing in mental and social-emotional well-being

This school year has been the most difficult one during the pandemic, several school and district leaders say. That's because the challenges of academic recovery, teacher shortages, violence on school grounds, COVID-19 quarantines and other hardships have accumulated to weigh heavily on students, teachers and staff.

That compression of trauma carried over three COVID school years has led many school systems to invest in mental and social-emotional health supports.

In fact, a higher percentage of school districts is putting American Rescue Plan funds toward behavioral and mental health (20.3%) than in COVID-19 testing, vaccination and contact tracing (14.7%), according to statistics collected by data firm Burbio. The data includes 4,370 districts representing 69% of the U.S. student population and $79.5 billion in ARP funding.

Likewise, 36% of districts listed mental health services as a top spending category for ARP in a survey of 150 district finance leaders conducted by the Association of School Business Officials International.

The money is being spent on hiring mental health professionals, training for both mental health professionals and educators, staff support, ed tech to monitor and respond to mental health struggles, and more, according to district spending plans.

Schools already were spending more on children's mental and social-emotional well-being before the pandemic hit — but the global health crisis threw a spotlight on student trauma as never before.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, published in April, found nearly a third — 31.7% — of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. Almost one in five had seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months before the survey.

What the pandemic has revealed is an awareness and attention to people's emotional well-being — and the fact that all learning is social and emotional, said Lora Hodges, CEO of the Center for Responsive Schools, a 41-year-old organization dedicated to social-emotional learning.

Hodges said school systems are being proactive in creating positive learning and culturally responsive environments, and in teaching students skills like empathy, cooperation and self control.

SEL serves as an important component to helping students develop prosocial skills they can use for their entire lives, she said. But, she said, school-based SEL is not a panacea for all the hurt that students and staff are experiencing today.

Although Hodges is encouraged by the increased awareness of SEL and student mental health, she worries new investments and approaches will be viewed as "pandemic solutions" that will be dropped or will fade out when the pandemic subsides.

"In the same way we need to teach math two years from now we'll need to teach SEL skills two years from now," Hodges said. "This is the way we educate children best."

The Best Buddies club holds a social event during the 2021-22 school year at Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls, Washington.
Permission granted by Brent Osborn

'Just ESSER it'

When Ector County ISD began its one-to-one tutoring plan, one principal brought together students selected for the program to congratulate them. Instead of telling them they were the most at-risk of failing or falling behind, the administrator explained their good fortune in getting a free private tutor.

"Because of this, the federal ESSER money, our students have access to things today, opportunities today, that they would never have access to," said Muri, the superintendent.

All across the nation, district leaders tell anecdotal stories like this showing positive impacts from the ESSER funding even in the short time it's been available. 

There has not been a big push for additional federal stimulus funding. Instead, districts are seeking more guidance on best practices for long-term stability of the ESSER investments they're making. They also are searching for approaches to avoid a funding cliff when federal education spending returns to normal levels, which is typically less than 10% of a district's annual budget. ESSER funding in some districts is between one-fourth and one-half of their annual budgets.

Some district fiscal managers are starting to wean their school communities away from relying on ESSER dollars so there is an easier transition to post-ESSER budgets. 

In reviewing ESSER funding requests for the Nine Mile Falls School District in Washington, Olson, the director of business operations, denied a request from the district’s high school to purchase vaping detectors for bathrooms. Olson said the school could use money in its building budget for that purpose, and the request didn't align with federal programs or grant spending rules.

Another plea for new lawn mowers for facility staff was also denied, she said. 

"I feel like we're on the right path to transition back" to regular budget allocations, Olson said. "It will be a little bit of a shock for some who just have gotten used to again saying 'just ESSER it.'"

The bigger conversation, many educators and education advocates say, is how this period of fiscal investment may influence K-12 funding at local, state and national levels in the future.

"I think all of us as citizens of this country need to understand that the long lasting effects of this pandemic will require a long-term investment on the part of educators for years to come," Muri said.