9 ways districts sit in the driver’s seat for stimulus spending

Though funds will funnel through the states, it's ultimately up to districts how to spend the money
By: | April 21, 2021

Keeping the community informed of what’s possible will be important as district leaders spend multiple waves of COVID stimulus funding, says one superintendent.

In the Upper Dublin School District north of Philadelphia, refining blending learning models that were implemented during the pandemic will be one priority, Superintendent Steven Yanni said during a stimulus spending webinar hosted by digital security provider, GoGuardian.

“One of the challenges is to help the community understand what the money can be used for,” Yanni said. “Community members hear you’re getting a million dollars or several million dollars, but there are some constraints.”

The webinar panel also offered these other ideas for superintendents to keep in mind as they receive and make equity-driven plans for stimulus funds:

1. Read the guidelines: Each district’s share of stimulus money will be based on their Title I funding rates.

Superintendents and their teams can learn all about how funds can be spent from the CDC’s “COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs.”

While the first volume focused on COVID precautions and prevention, the second edition covers instructional issues such as learning loss, teacher shortages, dual enrollment and tutoring, said Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

2. Districts are in the driver’s seat: Though funds will funnel through the states, it’s ultimately up to districts how to spend the 90% of the money that’s allocated to individual school systems.

“It’s really going to be districts in the driver’s seat to make sure equity goals are met, that we’re targetting money to the students who have historically received less,” Lovell said.

Stimulus stats

Here’s what each COVID stimulus bill provides for education:

CARES Act (Esser I): $13 billion
Esser II: $54 billion
American Rescue Plan: $123 billion

However, some governors and state legislature have begun to weigh with suggestions on how districts might spend stimulus funds, said Doug Mesecar, a former ed-tech executive and U.S. Department of Education deputy chief of staff.

Some of these state officials are “putting up guardrails” and strongly encouraging superintendents to emphasize certain areas—such as equity and the digital divide—in district spending plans, Mesecar said.

3. What does ‘evidence-based’ mean? Districts are required to spend funds on evidence- and research-based practices. This means that there must be data or research backing the effectiveness of an approach or program.

Mesecar cautioned district leaders to read research carefully, as data may indicate that certain programs are only effective with certain groups of students and only in very specific ways.

4. Defining learning loss: The American Rescue Plan places a priority on reversing learning loss. While the definition of learning loss may be obvious to some, the Department of Education is expected to offer more guidance on the topic in the coming weeks.

5. Tutoring and summer school: These are two programs many districts are using to combat learning loss. Lovell urged districts to ensure they can provide high-quality tutoring.

Best practices include providing tutoring during the school day, and offering it in high doses and in small groups, Lovell says.

Tutoring is also more effective when it’s taught by certified teachers, paraprofessionals or AmeriCorps volunteers, he adds.

As for summer schools, districts should consider partnering with community organizations to create summer camp-like experiences that emphasize academics but don’t require students to sit in a classroom for several hours, Lovell said.

6. Closing the digital divide: The American Rescue Plan was the first of the three stimulus bills to address the digital divide and the homework gap directly.

More from DA: 3 priorities for stimulus spending to recover from COVID 

While districts can spend money from the first two stimulus packages on devices and hotspots, the American Rescue Plan provides $7 billion to schools and libraries to expand home internet access, Lovell said.

7. Safer buildings: Many districts will spend funds on HVAC technology, air quality and other facilities upgrades to make buildings healthier.

“We know Covid-19 is not the last airborne illness or virus we’re going to see,” said Yanni, of the Upper Dublin School District. “When the next COVID 19 comes around, even if it’s not as drastic, we are going to have to answer why we didn’t take steps to make buildings ssfer.”

8. There are deadlines: CARES Act funds must be used by Sept. 30, 2022; ESSER II by Sept. 30, 2023; and American Rescue Plan by Sept. 30, 2024.

However, the Department of Education will almost certainly provide some flexibility, including some extensions, Mesecar said.