How Are Schools Spending ESSER Funds? 4 Takeaways From a New Report

The waterfall of one-time federal funds that deluged schools in 2020 and 2021 is driving big investments and posing steep challenges for the school leaders tasked with managing them, a new report by the Association of School Business Officials finds.

School districts invested the first two of three rounds of pandemic aid (known colloquially as ESSER I, II, and III, for “Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief”) in equipment to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and help students stay connected to school while stuck at home.

The report also says they’re concentrating attention for the third and largest round of funding on helping students recover from the pandemic and making long-overdue improvements to technology and facilities.

Some districts, like the Lincoln County schools in Oregon, are waiting to use their full set of ESSER funds in hopes that the pandemic and acute labor shortages will relax in the near future. The report quotes an anonymous official from that district:

“We very much want to provide additional afterschool learning opportunities, targeted tutoring, targeted supports for underserved students, and mental health support staff, but cannot hire enough support staff and substitutes to run our schools at normal levels, much less add these programs.”

But the federal government is urging schools to move quickly and invest in other ways if staffing is proving too difficult right now, said Robert Rodríguez, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development.

“These dollars need to be put to use now to meet the urgent needs of our learners, and to help support the environments in which they’re recovering and growing and reacclimating to their learning,” Rodríguez told Beth Frerking, Education Week’s editor-in -chief, during a virtual conversation at the 2022 Education Week Leadership Symposium on Wednesday.

Here are four takeaways from the school business officials association’s report, which reflects a survey of 154 districts across 35 states:

1. Many districts have already allocated their ESSER funds. Others just recently got access to them.

Some school funding advocates and media outlets have criticized districts for taking their time spending the funds. But 42 percent of respondents said more than three-quarters of their funds are already obligated, which means they’re legally or contractually committed to be spent on certain concrete items. More than half of that group said all of their funds are already obligated.

Still, a similar proportion—37 percent—of districts said less than half their ESSER allocation was obligated as of Jan. 31. That number has likely shrunk since then. But a sizable chunk of districts are still working out how to make the most of this unprecedented federal investment.

That’s not always because districts are dragging their feet, though. Eight percent of respondents said that as of the end of January, their state still hadn’t approved their ESSER plan document, which meant they couldn’t proceed with spending the money. Florida and Missouri, for instance, waited until a year after Congress approved the American Rescue Plan funding package in 2021 before allowing districts to access their entire allocation.

2. Addressing unfinished learning means everything from enrichment to technology and flexible scheduling.

More than half of respondents said they’re using ESSER II and III funds to address unfinished learning. That’s not surprising. Lost instructional time has been one of the major talking points in the fallout from the pandemic, even if not everyone agrees on how severe the problem is. For ESSER III, the most recent funding package that was approved in March 2021 districts are required to spend at least 20 percent of their allocation addressing it.

The range of approaches to addressing unfinished learning is vast. The most common one, with 63 percent of respondents, is expanding summer and enriching opportunities for students. Just over half of districts using ESSER funds to address unfinished learning are adding specialist staff to support student needs.

More than a third of respondents are investing ESSER funds in each of the following categories under the umbrella of addressing unfinished learning:

  • Expanding access to broadband and digital technology tools (47 percent)
  • Investing in professional development for teachers (45 percent)
  • Expanding extracurricular programs before and after school (38 percent)
  • Investing in high-quality curricula (38 percent)
  • Offering tutoring (34 percent)

A smaller subset of districts is hiring staff to reduce class sizes (18 percent); extending the school day or year (17 percent), offering flexible timing for classes on weekends or evenings (12 percent), and expanding early childhood programs (7 percent).

3. Facilities projects are more than just HVAC.

Proponents of improving school facilities during COVID-19 emphasized the importance of improving air quality by upgrading HVAC systems. Many districts are years or even decades behind on HVAC repairs, and 47 percent of districts that answered the survey used ESSER funds to catch up.

The next most common facilities upgrade, though, is one that’s flown under the radar: providing safer drinking water (28 percent).

The water crisis in Flint, Mich., last decade brought renewed attention to high levels of lead and other toxic chemicals in school water fountains. Since then, many districts have sought to convert fountains to touchless water bottle refilling stations, which tend to curb the use of plastic water bottles that harm the environment, and reduce the spread of bacteria and germs. West Virginia recently passed a bill requiring all newly constructed or renovated public schools to be outfitted with water refilling stations.

ESSER has helped pursue that goal for districts in DeKalb County, Ga.Meridian, miss.and Shelby County, Tenn.

Other facility improvements include repairs to existing facilities (19 percent), building outdoor learning spaces (17 percent), and new construction (4 percent).
But while some critics of ESSER spending have blasted districts that have spent that money to upgrade athletic facilities, only 3 percent of districts have done so.

4. Districts are conflicted on spending strategies and constrained by bureaucracy.

Facing competing pressure to spend quickly and produce strong results, more than half of districts (53 percent) said figuring out whether to spend quickly or to strategically extend the funds over a long period of time is a major challenge. More than half (56 percent) also said they’re concerned about the fiscal cliff that will appear in a couple of years, when ESSER money runs out and key spending priorities might not be sustainable in the long term.

Slightly more than a third of responding districts said labor shortages are a major challenge; 34 percent cited supply chain effects on product shipment delays; and 21 percent said they feel constrained by timelines that may prevent facilities projects from coming to fruition.

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