With upcoming deadlines on ESSER funds, don’t leave money on the table
Though the pandemic brought significant challenges to education (who can forget Spring of 2020 and the subsequent shutdowns?), it also fostered creativity, resilience and innovation in the way school districts meet challenges. There were also some other silver linings among the negatives. One in particular was the unprecedented injection of federal dollars into the education system, when Congress passed the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act.
Early days of the CARES Act
The CARES Act included an Education Stabilization Fund, providing $13.5 billion in K-12 formula grants to states, distributed to states based on their share of ESEA Title I-A funds.
School districts were given wide latitude as far as how they could spend the money from the federal standpoint, with states creating their own rules. While there was flexibility in the funding, school districts were given a list of allowable funding uses in broad categories.
These categories focused on students and student learning tools, coronavirus, as well as anything authorized by previous bills (ESEA, IDEA, etc.). Notably, the bill also included provision for continuation of administrative services, not something that is often included in federal dollars.
Continuation of federal support in the wake of COVID: ESSER funds
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which are part of the CARES Act funding for schools, have been allocated to support educational institutions in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The allowable uses of ESSER funds are guided by the U.S. Department of Education, and they aim to address the various challenges posed by the pandemic. The CARES money, now more commonly known as ESSER money, came in three allocations with staggered deadlines. Some of these deadlines are quickly approaching.
What can ESSER funds be used for?
While ESSER funds have a broad range of allowable uses, it's essential to check the specific guidelines and regulations set by the U.S. Department of Education and your state education agency for the most up-to-date information. Generally, ESSER funds can be used for activities that fall into the following categories:
- Preventing, preparing for, and responding to COVID-19
- Facility upgrades and improvements
- Addressing the unique needs of vulnerable populations
- Providing summer school, extended learning time, or after-school programs
- Purchasing educational technology
While most of the money coming from the federal government is rightly earmarked directly for instruction to combat learning loss, The CARES Act authorized waivers that allowed local districts increased flexibility on the use of Title IV-A funds, including lifting the limit on purchasing technology infrastructure.
Due to the virtual nature of most school functions during the COVID-19 crisis, technology became an essential tool in doing the business of the district as well as keeping the community informed.
If the tools contribute to addressing the challenges begun by the pandemic, supporting remote or hybrid learning, or enhancing communication and engagement with the community, there appears to be standing for using ESSER funds for these purposes.
In the ESSER Data Collection Form, OMB No. 1810-0749, expiring on May 31, 2025, use of the funds to enhance the school-family connection is addressed in this way:
Full-Service Community School - The term ‘‘full-service community school’’ means a public elementary school or secondary school that participates in a community-based effort to coordinate and integrate educational, developmental, family, health, and other comprehensive services through community-based organizations and public and private partnerships; and provides access to such services in school to students, families, and the community, such as access during the school year (including before- and after-school hours and weekends), as well as during the summer.
There is an opportunity to explore ESSER dollars to strengthen infrastructure needed to create secure communications among staff and with the board and community. Specific activities laid out in the initial provisions of the CARES Act included:
- Designing and implementing procedures and systems to improve preparedness and response efforts
- Other activities to maintain operations and continue services
What does this mean for school leaders?
Even now when board meetings are meeting in person again, it’s important to remember the primary concern of boards is the long-term viability of the school; software that ensures operations continue efficiently while allowing the district to be served does meet the stated goals of the CARES/ESSER funding.
Using secure board management software protects sensitive data regarding FRPA regulations. It prevents sensitive data from being susceptible to cyberthreats, one of the primary concerns of educational organizations right now.
While working and meeting remotely, board software provided for business continuity. Another lesson of COVID was that so much work can be done remotely. For administrators that are attending conferences and training frequently (or even catching up at home) board software helps avoid work from piling up — one of the worst parts about being away from your desk.
Even though COVID no longer means fully remote meetings and full time working from home, it still rears its ugly head resulting in isolation to protect other office members. This can be done easily in a cloud-based format so work productivity doesn’t suffer and operations continue.
Using a board management solution also creates an opportunity to connect with your community and keep parents informed. Transparency has been a key concern of taxpayers since the early remote meetings during the pandemic. Housing these meetings in your board software creates transparency and confidence that the board is continuing the work of the district in good faith and with ready access to records.
If your district has not spent all your COVID money or has requested an extension, remember that money may qualify to be spent on technology that ensures continuation of administrative services and communication, both of which are supported through board software. Act now and see if you qualify before the deadlines.
Note: It's crucial to review the official guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Education and consult with your state education agency to ensure compliance with the specific regulations and allowable uses in your jurisdiction.
At Diligent, we develop solutions to help school boards operate effectively and transparently. Diligent Community is a board management platform specially designed to streamline governance for public boards, save precious time, manage policy effectively and increase community trust. Let us know how we can help your leadership team.