The immediate dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic may be on the wane, but we will be dealing with its aftermath for years to come. This is especially true for K-12 educators who are trying everything in their power to narrow the massive learning loss gap that has occurred as a direct result of schools being forced to close their doors and pivot to a remote learning model during the worst of the pandemic.
The majority of elementary, middle and high schools in the nation sent students home for spring break in March 2020, never to return for the remainder of the school year. Many American schools remained closed for the better part of the 2020-2021 school year, with a number of schools staying on a remote platform for the bulk of the 2021-2022 school year as well. In fact, some schools have only returned to a traditional in-person format at the start of this school year, meaning that there are kids in America who, until a couple of weeks ago, had not set foot in a classroom for over two and a half years.
While it may be years or even decades before we see the full impact on students’ education amid the chaos and upheaval of the COVID-19 era, we are already seeing the fallout. A New York Times article from September 1 reported that the most recent math and reading test results for 9-year-olds across the country indicated that two decades’ worth of progress had effectively been erased by the pandemic, with test score declines spanning almost all races and income levels.
This devastating blow to American education has educators and parents scrambling to get students back on track. Fortunately, aid from the government in the form of the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) Fund is providing a lifeline to help schools get the staff, equipment and resources they need to reverse the course of the COVID learning loss before it worsens.
What is ESSER funding?
On March 27, 2020, shortly after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress allocated approximately $13.2 billion of funds allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund as part of the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the ESSER Fund. This initial allocation is referred to as ESSER I funding, and was used to award grants to state educational agencies, or SEAs, for the purpose of providing local educational agencies (LEAs) emergency relief funds to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As stated on the official website for the Office of Elementary & Secondary Education (OESE), “ESSER Fund awards to SEAs are in the same proportion as each State received funds under Part A of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, in fiscal year 2019.”
As the pandemic continued to make a tremendous negative impact on virtually all aspects of society, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act of 2021 was signed into law on December 27, 2020 to provide an additional $54.3 billion for the ESSER Fund, known as ESSER II funding. As the OESE website states, “ESSER II Fund awards to SEAs are in the same proportion as each State received funds under Part A of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, in fiscal year 2020.”
A final, $1.9 trillion package of assistance measures was signed into law on March 11, 2021 under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act. This unprecedented amount included $122 billion in funding for elementary and secondary schools under what is known as ARP ESSER, in an effort to help schools reopen safely and sustain a pre-COVID level of operation, as well as address the massive academic and emotional impact the pandemic has had on students. As stated on the OESE website, “ARP ESSER Fund awards to SEAs are in the same proportion as each State received funds under Part A of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, in fiscal year 2020.”
Within two weeks of signing the ARP Act, the Department of Education distributed $81,316,533,333.00 of ARP ESSER funds by states, equaling two-thirds of each state’s total funding. In order to receive the remaining third of their funding, each state was required to submit a plan for how to spend ESSER funds most effectively in terms of safely reopening schools and providing adequate academic and mental health support, which the Department of Education then had to approve.
States were also required by the Department of Education to ensure LEAs submitted plans for their use of ARP ESSER funding for schools for a safe return to in-person instruction and academic recovery. Each state was also required to provide a way for families and communities to view their individual district’s plan.
What ESSER funding means for 2022
As of the end of 2021, all state plans had been approved, and all ARP ESSER funds were distributed. LEAs have since been able to award funding to schools in their individual districts, meaning that they are now able to put their plans in motion. By using funds from ESSER I, ESSER II and ARP ESSER, school administrators and educators can help students put the damaging effects of the coronavirus behind them and make the first strides toward closing the learning loss gap, getting the next generation back on track for academic success.