We’ve almost seen the last pre-pandemic moments pop up in our “one year ago today” photo feeds on social media. It’s been almost a year since quarantines and nationwide school closures began. As we approach the one-year anniversary, education leaders in the U.S. are focused on recovery. That includes billions of dollars set aside for school coronavirus relief.
What school coronavirus relief looks like
The coming weeks are significant because we’ll see the roll-out of a second round of school coronavirus relief funding. The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) provides $54.3 billion in K-12 formula grants to states. The funds will be given out based on Title I-A.
An additional $2.75 billion will be distributed to governors. They’ll be able to spend their funds based on the needs of students and schools, including parochial and private schools. The last week of February 2021, the House Budget Committee approved another $170 billion in stimulus for K-12 and higher education. Fingers are crossed that it will come through.
All school coronavirus relief funds need to be spent on response activities. That includes spending on technology, hardware, software and connectivity. Acting U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Mitchell Zais hopes that schools will use it “to build IT and distance learning capacity for now and in preparation for the future.”
Technology has kept students learning over the last year, and leaders have noticed its power and limitations. We’re all looking at ways to get students, especially those most negatively impacted by the pandemic, back on track. Here’s a compilation of insider recommendations and research to inform those tough decisions. Let’s look at five ways you can spend school coronavirus relief funds.
1. Spend coronavirus relief on access and connectivity
Use school funds on reliable internet
When school districts across the country transitioned to online learning environments, it showed us the deep divide in broadband access. This was especially true for rural, inner city and other marginalized areas. Vulnerable populations of students were at a disadvantage again. Common Sense reported on students who went to school remotely. Nearly one-third across the United States did not have adequate internet or devices.
The Education Trust in New York and California surveyed parents six months into virtual learning. The survey showed that reliable internet access was still a top concern. Almost half of New York families polled worried whether they could afford internet access. This was particularly true for Latinx parents and families in large cities. Only 24% of those parents reported that their child’s school had made it available.
Coming up with solutions has fallen heavily on schools. Some have teamed up with service providers to give students and families access to hotspots and broadband. Recently others, like the Murray City school district in Utah, are taking matters into their own hands by using CARES funding to set up their own networks. To do this, some are running fiber optics cables to specific areas. Others are using antennas to beam internet signals over short distances on FCC-licensed airwave spectrums.
Angela Siefer, executive director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, shared what will happen if districts build their own network. She explained that costs will be lower after the first investment. Plus, the connection will be more stable and the district will be in control.
Use school funds on reliable devices
Along with connectivity, students need up-to-date, reliable devices that can handle their workload. Again families are coming up short. In the New York survey, 90% of parents said that it would be helpful to borrow iPads and laptops from schools. Only half of those families said this was happening, though, at their school. Districts should consider using school coronavirus relief funds on devices for students.
“School systems are facing a financial imperative as they try to ensure that every student and teacher has access to broadband connections and devices at school and at home. Even when this pandemic is “over,” school districts will need growing federal and state technology investments,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).
“Education is fundamentally changing and ensuring learning continuity via robust internet and devices, as well as a digital learning platform, is a requirement for learning going forward.”
2. Spend school relief funds on blended learning tools
School districts need to be equipped to provide seamless instruction, no matter what happens. Quality blended learning tools help teachers create lessons that can be taught either in-person or virtually. Even before the pandemic, blended or online learning attracted students who needed alternative options to classroom learning.
According to a report by Future of School, the top reason students choose online/blended learning is flexibility. They can move at their own pace and have flexibility in course scheduling. Using blended learning tools allows districts to provide families and learners with options for how and where students learn.
Dr. Monica Burns, an EdTech and Curriculum Consultant and former New York City public school teacher explains. “One crucial component of blended learning is the opportunity for differentiated instruction. Teachers can use technology strategically to curate digital resources for students and provide small group support with the support of digital tools.”
Personalizing learning tailors curriculum to students’ abilities and diverse learning needs. When teachers can use technology that does this, they can improve outcomes across the board. Going back to pre-pandemic “normal” may not be in students’ best interests. Personalized learning is proving itself to be essential for students in all learning environments. School coronavirus relief funds used toward personalized learning would make a positive impact.
3. Use school coronavirus funds on training staff
To give students the benefits of EdTech and blended learning tools, teachers themselves need to be comfortable with those tools. Yet, like students, all educators learn differently. That means training and professional development should have the same personalization as classroom instruction.
In an EdTech Magazine article on blended learning, experts recommend a multipronged approach in traditional group-based workshops, one-on-one coaching, live webinars and self-paced online courses.
Erin Heinrich, one of the Cincinnati Public School district’s blended-learning coordinators explains this in the article. “A lot of the challenge is helping teachers make the transition from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side, in addition to helping them understand and leverage technology tools in the best possible way,”
She continues, “In doing that, we realize there’s no one-size-fits-all. So, we try to meet our teachers where they are because, just like our students, not every teacher learns in the same way.”
Carlos R. Del Valle, Seattle Public Schools executive director of technology, explains that all of this also requires more funding. School districts need teams that have the knowledge to maintain infrastructure. They also need staff who can provide technical help with devices and user support. School coronavirus relief funding can be used for this.
The district hired its first-ever digital equity manager to communicate with the public and to understand issues beyond technology itself. They wanted to make sure digital equity gaps were identified and addressed with the right solutions.
4. Ensure student safety and privacy with relief funds
Since remote learning began during the pandemic, the number of EdTech tools districts have used has dramatically increased. According to EdTech Insights, the monthly number rose from 952 to 1322. CoSN’s Driving K-12 Innovation advisory board recommends selecting these tools intentionally. They should prioritize learning, student safety, equitable access, security and data privacy.
This means that districts should evaluate technology, including free platforms and tools. They should also verify that the EdTech companies comply with local laws around student privacy. CoSN has endorsed the Student Privacy Pledge.
Over the last five years, districts and states have been working to update outdated data privacy policies. However not all schools, or EdTech companies, have kept pace. Nicholas Svensson, president and CEO of SMART Technologies explains, “The challenge has been compounded by the fact that students are now learning outside their school and protected school network, creating a new sense of urgency in ensuring the privacy of student data.”
5. Establish digital collaboration environments with coronavirus funds
Having a digital environment that integrates systems is the final recommendation. In CoSN’s Driving K-12 Innovation report, digital collaboration environments was named the top 2021 “Tech Enabler.” It includes systems, tools, broadband connectivity and practices for online collaboration.
Humanizing digital environments was one of the board’s recommendations to administrators. They believe that technology should be used to connect and collaborate. Also, empathy and social emotional learning need to be emphasized. The report explains, “Consider what’s worked in terms of synchronous and asynchronous learning and where it has fallen short. Then build on those experiences.”
“A humanized classroom is simply one where students are valued for who they are, and that they feel known, secure and respected. It’s important because in those conditions students can flourish and achieve their potential, and it’s even more important in an online classroom because a focused intention is needed to create it,” says Wayne Poncia, CEO of Hāpara.
In the parent surveys, a key area of improvement was communication. Regular two-way communication with families can’t be overemphasized. Going forward it is important to involve students, administrators, staff and families in creating the future of learning in their school system.
DOE and think tank advisors in sync as nation moves deeper into pandemic recovery
The third wave of relief dollars comes with continued hope for a positive shift in education.
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) released $81 billion in funding on March 24 to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Equity is a major focus for the Department of Education.
For one, each state is required to consider input from students, educators and community groups. Their input will help in plans for spending the $122 billion in public K-12 school funds.
Secondly, districts are being pushed to prioritize the needs of underrepresented student groups. These groups have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Districts must consider not only students’ academic needs but also their social and emotional needs. A minimum of 20 percent of a LEA’s total ARP ESSER allocation must be directed to addressing learning loss. Learning loss should be supported through evidence-based interventions.
Additionally, outside the public school allotment, $3 billion has been earmarked for special education. Plus, $850 million has been allotted to Outlying Areas, populations deeply affected by remote learning. The measure’s Maintenance of Effort clause works to ensure that states do not use the federal funds in place of funds now supporting schools. Consequences for failing to meet MOE requirements include losing out on future dollars and having to return existing funds.
Systemic change is clearly on the minds of education experts. Several senior fellows and advisors with Future Ed, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, recently expressed this. They responded to how educational leaders can truly serve students with the billions of dollars flowing into the nation’s schools.
Mario Ramirez and Andrew Buher of the Opportunity Labs call for districts and schools to review all available student-level data. They said leaders should try to understand the extent of the problems before allocating funds.
“They should then formulate SMARTE—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant time-based, and equitable—goals that address those problems and settle on evidence-based or evidence-informed interventions to achieve the agreed upon goals,” they write.
Amanda Fernandez, the CEO and co-founder of Latinos for Education warns against a “race back to normal.” She says that the pre-pandemic normal wasn’t serving children from low-income families, Black and Latino students, and English Learners. Fernandez has three top priorities for moving forward in a more equitable way. They are tech equity, mental health supports and preschool for all.
She also notes that tech will continue to play a key role in students’ learning. It will also affect their ability to navigate our post-COVID, even after schools return to in-person instruction.
Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education, believes online or hybrid teaching is here to stay at least for some students.
“The most important investments schools can make emerging from the pandemic are high-quality, well-supported, distance learning-ready curriculum materials—including adequate supports for teachers to understand and use those materials,” she says.
She urges schools to choose comprehensive instructional materials, rather than piecemeal solutions. She says that this helps transition instruction back and forth as needed without massive disruption to teaching and learning.
“Only with a quality, online-friendly curriculum can districts possibly hope to provide adequate educational opportunity to kids in the online setting,” she adds.
The scene at schools in early June centered around the typical final exams, year-end evaluations, graduations and proms. Many didn’t even take place on campus. While this end of the school year has been much more “normal” than last, 2021 was marked by less-typical events like COVID-19 vaccination clinics.
Behind the scenes, administrators continue the effort to recuperate from pandemic-related losses. They are working to direct relief dollars where they’ll make the most impact for students. Meanwhile, the Department of Education has been at work issuing guidance to support states and districts.
DOE is urging states and districts to ensure that equity is their top priority. Its most recent guidance issued on June 9 clarifies the maintenance of Equity (MOE) requirements. Spending federal stimulus dollars should address issues of inequality that predated the pandemic.
“This is our moment as educators and as leaders to transform our education systems so they are truly serving all of our nation’s students,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a recent statement. “While COVID-19 has worsened many inequities in our schools and communities, we know that even before the pandemic, a high-quality education was out of reach for too many of our nation’s students and families.”
In a nutshell, the guidance warns states that per-pupil funding to high-need school districts and its highest poverty districts cannot drop below fiscal 2019 levels. MOE requirements also prevent districts from disproportionately reducing local per-pupil funding and full-time staff per pupil in high-poverty schools.
In a recent USA Today article, Senior Education Writer Lauren Camera wrote about the new guidelines. She notes, “The guidance, which is in part designed to prevent states and local school districts from using federal stimulus dollars to backfill budget cuts, is a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s focus on racial equity, support for underserved communities and reopening schools in a way that addresses long-standing issues of inequality.”
In another 61-page document issued in May 2021, the Education Department discussed the American Rescue Plan and two earlier relief packages. The document explained that states and school districts should manage the funds to promote student health and academic success. The department also gave best practices for supporting students on a social emotional level.
FutureEd Editorial Director Phyllis Jordan also recently explained the department’s guidance. She said it reiterates the need for states and local districts to use “evidence-based” interventions. This is to help students recover from lost instructional time during the pandemic. She also clarified that the definitions of evidence-based match those provided in the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The guidance also answers a number of questions about what the money can be spent on. It also explains, for example, whether funds can be braided with other funding. The quick answer to that is yes.
Improving cyber security is also an allowed use of the funds. There are increasing concerns about student data and security breaches in education. More schools and districts are working to lessen their vulnerability to cybercrime.
Schools are also encouraged to invest in educational technology to support distance and in-class learning. There is a special focus on students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care. This includes training educators in the effective implementation of online learning. The document specifically states that “an LEA may use ESSER and GEER funds to purchase educational technology for student and educator use to support the continuity of learning.”
In line with its focus on inclusion, the DOE launched its new Education Equity Summit Series on June 22. There was a discussion of best practices for building an equitable environment in schools. It included a virtual panel of leading educators working to make equitable schools a reality.
“As we began our school reopening process, we knew that this was the moment not to return to the status quo; but begin to reimagine our school systems. Reimagining is deeper than day to day activity. It is about making sure each and every student feels seen and heard in their classroom setting. It is about cultural responsiveness, and inclusivity. This moment of evolution is about meeting the individual needs of each of our nation’s students and investing in their success.”