The ESSER Relief Fund is just one way the U.S. government has stepped in to support schools throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s what you need to know. 

Since the onset of Coronavirus in the U.S., the country has faced many hardships on top of the lives lost. These challenging times have impacted individuals, business, schools, and more. The government has stepped up and offered many resources and large amounts of funding to help keep the economy afloat.

To date, the U.S. Congress has passed six relief packages aimed at providing assistance to individuals and businesses who are dealing with the economic fallout since the pandemic began. In total, the stimulus packages amount to approximately $4 trillion in spending.

Three of the stimulus packages include funding for elementary and secondary schools. The funding is entitled the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.

Let’s take a deep dive into some of the details that make up the ESSER Fund.

Elementary and Secondary School Relief: When, Where, and How Much?

The first batch of ESSER funds was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security or CARES Act. The act was passed in March of 2020. When it set aside $13.5 billion to be spent on elementary and secondary school emergency relief, the CARES Act created the ESSER fund.

At the end of 2020 (December 27, 2020), Congress passed The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA). It allocated an additional $54.3 billion for ESSER and is referred to as the ESSER II fund.

And the most recent stimulus package which included funds for ESSER—The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act—was passed by Congress in March of 2021. It added just under $123 billion to the ESSER coffers and is known as the ESSER III fund.

What’s the Timeframe and Usage of the School Emergency Relief Fund

The monies allocated via the CARES Act, CRSSA, and ARP come with plenty of strings attached, including when it must be spent and for what capacity.

ESSER, ESSER II, and ESSER III monies, “May be used for pre-award costs dating back to March 13, 2020, when the national emergency was declared,” according to the New Jersey Department of Education. Funding from ESSER is available to be distributed from May 11, 2020, to September 30, 2021. The timeframe for ESSER II is March 15, 2021, through September 30, 2022. For ESSER III, the period is May 24, 2021, through September 30, 2023.

The bills clearly stipulate how school emergency relief funds are to be spent. The CARES Act notes that allowable uses are “preventing, preparing for and responding to COVID-19.” The government goes into greater details, ESSER funds, along with ESSER II and ESSER III “uses include: hiring new staff and avoiding layoffs and developing strategies and implementing public health protocols including, to the greatest extent practicable, policies in line with CDC guidance for the reopening and operation of school facilities to effectively maintain the health and safety of students, educators and other staff.”

When CRSSA became law, more guidance was offered on how ESSER II was to be spent. These uses include addressing learning loss, preparing schools for reopening, and testing, repairing, and upgrading projects to improve air quality in school buildings.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund that the CARES Act created and was augmented with ESSER II and ESSER III has and will continue to help schools provide for their students.

With ESSER III, the government added “…not less than 20% of its total ARP ESSER allocation to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions, such as summer learning or summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive after-school programs, or extended school year programs and ensure that such interventions respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student groups.” The other 80% was available to be used for the same uses as noted in ESSER and ESSER II.

In an effort to truly reach every student even those who are not in an elementary and secondary school, ESSER III funds stipulate that the U.S. Department of Education set aside $800 million to identify and support homeless children and youth. The school emergency relief funds are to provide these children, says the U.S. Department of Education, “… comprehensive, wrap-around services that address needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and allow them to attend school and participate fully in all school activities.”

Who Gets What from the ESSER Fund?

Congress has allocated how the ESSER funds are to be divided. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the government is applying the ESSER fund via the same proportional system that is used for states reception of funds “under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Title-IA.”

Of the school emergency relief funds, 10% may be earmarked for emergency needs that arise due to COVID-19 response as determined by the state. However, “States must distribute at least 90% of funds to local education agencies (LEAs) based on their proportional share of ESEA Title I-A funds.”

How Are the ESSER Funds Funnelled from the Government to Individual Schools?

There are a few channels that the ESSER funds go through before they get to an elementary and secondary school. Note charter schools are eligible for emergency relief funds as well.

The first step in the process is for the funds to be transferred to state educational agencies (SEAs). The SEAs from each state as well as Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia “apply directly to the Department [of Education] for ESSER Funds. The SEA is the agency primarily responsible for the state supervision of public elementary schools and secondary schools.”

Charter schools are eligible to receive school emergency relief funding as well. Those charter schools that are part of an LEA may receive subgrants from ESSER just like other elementary and secondary schools. As noted, “A charter school that is not an LEA may not receive a formula subgrant, but it may receive support under ESSER through the LEA of which it is a part.”

The SEAs then award subgrants to local educational agencies (LEAs) who represent school districts. There’s a deadline of one from when the SEAs received emergency relief funds to when they must award the subgrants.

If there are any ESSER funds that have not been awarded within the one-year deadline, the SEA’s are required to return the money to the U.S. Department of Education as noted in the CARES Act.

While the LEAs have flexibility in how they allocate the funds to those that are part of its school district, the U.S. Department of Education encouraged them to target activities that support remote learning for every student, particularly those students who are disadvantaged or are at-risk students.

ESSER formula funds are available to every school in the district, regardless of its Title I, Part A status. In addition, Title I, Part A requirements are not relevant to funding from ESSER.

Despite the relatively free reign in spending ESSER, ESSER II, and ESSER III funds, the Department of Education is monitoring how the money is being spent. The funds may also be audited to ensure the money was spent in a suitable manner.

The emergency relief funds are to be tracked, and “LEAs are required to complete and submit CARES Act Performance Reports throughout the project period.”

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund that was part of the ARP included further stipulations on how funding was to be used. Within 30 days of receiving receive funds via ESSER, LEAs must publicize (on its website) their plan “for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services …” Before going public with the plan on returning to in-person learning, LEAs must seek public comment for their proposed plan.

What Is a Sub-Recipient of an ESSER Fund?

Besides LEAs who represent school districts, ESSER, ESSER II, and ESSER III funds are available to sub-recipients. This includes, “A wide range of entities, including LEAs and organizations serving students and families, may be a “subrecipient” of funds from the SEA Reserve,” according to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. They further note that sub-recipients include “any entity that receives a subgrant or contract consistent with applicable State and Federal subgrant and procurement standards.”

Allocation of the ESSER fund to sub-recipients also has a deadline. Within one year of receiving the funds allocated to their state, the SEA must award LEAs ESSER formula subgrants. Like other recipients, funding from ESSER is available for obligation by sub-recipients through September 30, 2022.

Are Private Schools Eligible to Receive ESSER Funds?

The CARES Act does allow ESSER funds to be allocated to private schools. However, the CARES Act makes a distinction between for-profit and not-for -profit private schools. Regarding not-for-profit private schools, the rules state, as noted by the American Federation for Children, that they are eligible for equitable ESSER Funds “even if a non-public school has not previously participated in federal education programs, such as Title I, Part A or Title VIII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).”

On the other hand, the CARES Act states that for-profit private schools, are not eligible to receive equitable services.

To clarify, equitable services is defined by the US Department of Education as providing “federal education aid has been directed in an equitable way toward helping all children in need, regardless of the type of school they attend. Private school students are eligible for a proportionate share of education funding for many federal education programs – the funds are used for services provided to private school students and teachers.”

Not-for-profit private schools secure ESSER funds reaching to their LEAs and informing them of their interest in participating in the program.

They then meet with the LEA and “Provide a needs assessment that describes what you will be seeking support for to assist teachers and students with remote learning, as well as what needs to be done to prepare your school for all students and teachers to return to a safe environment.” They should also have enrollment information because the LEA uses the data to determine a school’s proportional share.

School districts across the country are striving to provide a safe and healthy learning experience for their students. As each elementary and secondary school determined their needs, the costs are astronomical. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund that the CARES Act created and was augmented with ESSER II and ESSER III has and will continue to help schools provide for their students. By understanding the details of the ESSER Fund, schools can feel confident they are able to get the available assistance.

ABOUT LARRY

Larry is an experienced educator having taught at both the K-12 and post high school level. Outside of the classroom, Larry is a freelance writer whose writing focuses on edtech and general education topics.