Divvying Up the Dollars

Districts are dedicating ESSER funds to hiring new personnel, enhancing academic supports, and exploring innovative ideas.

Topics: Advocacy and Legislation, Pandemic Leadership

In Dayton, Ohio, teachers are doubling up in primary grade classrooms to ensure that every child gets the attention they need to recover academically. In Dallas, principals are using a novel approach to school discipline that’s reducing suspensions and saving money. And in Baltimore, schools are tapping paraeducators to serve as tutors, part of a program to develop a more diverse pipeline of teachers.

Two years into a pandemic that has set students back academically and emotionally, schools across the country are using an infusion of federal COVID aid to remake how they deliver education and social-emotional support. The challenge ahead for elementary school principals is to identify the most effective innovations and find a way to sustain them after the supplemental federal funding runs out.

Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Congress has dedicated nearly $190 billion to K–12 public schools, FutureEd reports. The latest round—the $122 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) funds included in the 2021 American Rescue Plan—comes with a requirement that school districts and charter school organizations spend at least 20 percent of the money on academic recovery. Local agencies must submit a plan to take advantage of federal dollars, revealing what schools are prioritizing.

With information compiled by data-services firm Burbio, FutureEd analyzed more than 5,000 local spending plans (future-ed.org/local-covid-relief-spending) representing 74 percent of the nation’s public schools. While some of the money went toward masks, contact tracing, and social distancing equipment, academic recovery constitutes a large share of proposed spending—more than 25 percent, or a projected total of more than $27 billion by the September 2024 deadline for obligating funds.

Even more money is earmarked for teachers and staff, which, at more than 27 percent, is projected to reach nearly $30 billion. Spending on facilities—particularly upgrades and renovations to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems—accounts for another 23 percent, or a projected $26 billion. School technology and the mental and physical health needs of students round out the top priorities for the third round of ESSER III funds.

Principals Get a Say in Spending

Some places are giving principals a voice on how to spend the money. In Milwaukee, for instance, the school board granted each school $100,000 to spend on a range of options, including staff and technology. In Bibb County, Georgia, Superintendent Curtis Jones sought input from every principal before developing a plan and submitting it to the school board. “I said to principals, ‘If I gave you a million dollars, what would you use it for?’ ” Jones recalls. “And they came up with some great plans that address the needs that they had not been able to cover.”

In every region, hiring and rewarding instructional staff are emerging as the most common uses for ESSER III funds. That includes money to bring in more teachers to reduce class sizes and interventionists to support math and reading instruction.

Early in the pandemic, the challenges of guaranteeing remote instruction led to many innovative approaches that principals supported with COVID-19 relief funds and now hope to sustain further. For instance, some schools developed multi­teacher teams, with one teacher leading lessons and others working closely with struggling students.

In another configuration, the Dayton (Ohio) Public School District hired nearly 100 additional educators so that every first- to third-grade classroom could have two teachers—one to focus on literacy and one to focus on math. This approach reduced class sizes and has shown promise for helping students recover learning they missed during the pandemic. Other school leaders reorganized schedules to provide more time for teachers to collaborate.

Since COVID-19 relief aid has supported some of these innovations, school districts will need to come up with additional funding to retain added staff members. But money isn’t the only challenge to sustaining such programs; certain strategies might also require higher pay for some positions or changes to union contracts.

Retaining Teachers and Recruiting More

For many districts, the biggest issue has been keeping the teachers and support staff members they need. In a 2021 poll conducted for Education Week, more than 75 percent of principals and district administrators reported problems with staffing shortages.

Some areas experienced competition among districts, with schools poaching staff from neighboring communities. That’s what was happening in North Carolina’s Alamance-Burlington School System last fall, before the school board decided to spend $10 million in ESSER III funds on Christmas bonuses for all teachers and staff members.

About 500 districts and charters in the Burbio sample are earmarking federal aid to pay bonuses. Bonuses are an appealing way to use ESSER funds, since they don’t require permanent salary increases that must be sustained after COVID-19 relief aid expires. But FutureEd’s research shows mixed results for across-the-board incentives, noting that teachers often leave after the minimum period required for a bonus.

The best approach might be to target high-priority, short-term instructional needs, such as additional math and reading specialists during the post-pandemic period. It also makes sense to focus incentives on hard-to-fill fields such as special education, says Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or on early-career teachers, who are more likely to leave than older colleagues who are vested in their pensions.

Many schools have struggled to find substitute teachers. In Connecticut, Achievement First Public Charter Schools are using ESSER III funds to hire long-term substitutes who can help out in various classrooms. Even before the pandemic began, schools in Central Falls, Rhode Island, were hiring “permanent” substitutes and giving them mentoring and training to become full-time teachers the following year.

“Grow your own” programs that train para­educators, after­school providers, and other local support staff to become teachers have shown promise in improving retention. The approach is particularly effective at developing a more diverse education workforce.

Training Teachers for Success

Two-fifths of school districts across the country are spending federal COVID-19 aid on professional development for teaching staff. This is a smart move for sustaining ESSER III gains, since training can impart knowledge and skills that teachers can use long after the money runs out.

Most PD focuses on academics, such as learning new curricula, understanding the science of reading, and mastering technology. But in many districts, the emphasis is on helping educators support students with social-emotional growth. That means altering the way teachers treat students and their beliefs and biases about students’ abilities.

Research shows that such “teacher mindset” training can lead to students who are more confident that they can handle schoolwork and are more motivated to take on challenges. Districts are also providing professional development on social-​emotional learning (SEL) to give teachers more strategies to build learning skills and confidence among students.

Some of that training focuses specifically on providing a more equitable approach to school discipline. In communities such as Branford, Connecticut, elementary principals are teaching their staffs “responsive classroom” techniques that can create a calmer, more engaging climate for learning.

The Dallas Independent School District is using ESSER III aid to open “Reset Centers” where misbehaving students can be sent to calm down and discuss their issues with other students or counselors. The approach reduced the number of suspensions in the past school year, meaning fewer absences and more funding for schools in a state where school aid is based on average daily attendance.

Building a Sense of Connection

Before the pandemic, schools used home visits to create connections with families, a strategy that led to improvements in attendance and achievement. During remote learning, these visits continued online, becoming an essential way for schools to keep up with families and reengage absentee students.

School districts recognize the importance of family engagement, with a quarter of those in the Burbio sample planning to invest in events, communications campaigns, and home-visit programs. Principals who have led successful visiting efforts have found that they are especially effective in the elementary years, and with families of English-​language learners and low-​income families of color. The approach is not without costs, since teachers need to be trained and compensated for visits that typically occur outside of school hours.

Mentoring programs that pair students with caring adults one-on-one represent another strategy for building strong connections. Mentors can be drawn from the school staff, community-based organizations, and older students. In all cases, research found results were strongest in settings where mentors are in school at least three days a week, work with a defined caseload, have access to student data, and have a voice in regular, principal-led meetings.

Addressing Student Health Needs

Some of the mental health challenges and trauma that students are facing now go beyond what teachers and mentors are able to address. That’s why more than a third of the local education agencies in the Burbio sample have earmarked a combined total of $1.3 billion in ESSER III funding to bring in psychologists, social workers, and mental health counselors.

Poway Unified School District in the San Diego area, for instance, is earmarking COVID-19 relief aid for social workers, psychologists, and counselors in all of its 38 schools. Some schools are adding mental health services as part of full-​service clinics that address both physical and mental health needs; others are using telehealth systems to offer a broader range of services.

Clinics rely on local, state, and federal dollars that are rarely guaranteed for the long term—and neither are the salaries of any new mental health professionals or nurses whose salaries are subsidized by COVID-19 relief aid. Medicaid might help pay some future costs if school districts and states are set up to seek reimbursement.

Many principals are approaching ESSER III spending with caution, aware of the fiscal cliff that awaits them after the September 2024 deadline for obligating funds and the extended deadline for spending it. But others recognize the rare opportunity that federal aid brings. Administrators who have long argued for more building-level mental health supports are finally able to bring in the personnel they need and prove their value. Principals with innovative ideas for deploying teachers are trying out those ideas to show what’s possible. And schools are deepening connections with families and community organizations—relationships that can bear fruit in the years ahead.

Phyllis W. Jordan is associate director of FutureEd.

Bella DiMarco is a policy analyst for FutureEd.