Funding Your School's Reopening with ESSER (CARES)

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K-12 leaders are faced with many challenges right now as they work to create a safe, healthy and secure learning environment for their students. There is unprecedented federal and state funding available to help schools safely reopen and maintain continuity of education, but there is also some uncertainty about this funding. We have broken down this complex topic to help schools navigate the emergency relief funds that are available:

What is ESSER? 

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds were established by Congress to offer financial support to districts and schools as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

The US Department of Education's ESSER Funds include the following programs:

  • ESSER I: $13bn
    • Signed into law in March 2020
    • Primarily for immediate-need health equipment and distance learning technology
  • ESSER II: $54bn
    • Signed into law in December 2020
    • Primarily for learning continuity/equity and healthy classroom/office renovations
  • ESSER III: $122bn
    • Signed into law in March 2021
    • Primarily for learning recovery and healthy/safe school buildings reopenings
  • ESSER IV (pending): $100bn
    • Expected Congressional vote Summer 2021
    • For school building renovations, additions, new schools, and infrastructure

Between the three existing ESSER programs, there is $189 billion dedicated solely to facilitating the safe and healthy return to in-person instruction, and maintaining the continuity of equitable education services of America's K-12 schools. 

What does ESSER (CARES) address?

The funding provided through ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief) I, II, III, and the pending IV is focused on helping schools safely reopen and sustain safe operation following the COVID-19 pandemic.

It covers:

  • Public school districts
  • Charter schools
  • Magnet schools
  • Some private schools

Intended as a way to help schools that may be struggling to reopen, this funding ensures that schools across the nation have the ability to meet the needs of their students from an education, safety/security, and wellness perspective. 

Funding is especially focused on strategies for working with students in wealth-challenged schools, as well as those experiencing homelessness and those with disabilities, by addressing special needs such as school lunches, lack of internet and/or necessary distance learning materials. As schools reopen there is an additional need for mental health counseling and an expanded network of educators. 

How are funds distributed to local school districts?

  • Funds for the CARES Act flow from Congress to the Department of Education (US DoEd) under the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief (ESSER) funds
  • The US DoEd distributes them to each State Education Agency (SEA) based on Title 1 guidelines
  • Each State Education Agency (SEA) then allocates funds to Local Education Agencies (LEA) based on their Title 1 and Wealth-Challenged status
  • The SEA then distributes funds to the LEA based on their submitted plans/budgets

Plan/budget requirements:

LEAs are either required or advised to:

  • Consult local education stakeholders on their plans including administrators and teachers organizations/unions
  • Maintain a high-level of public budget visibility and access to the plans
  • Secure document endorsement by procurement officials, superintendent, local school board, legal staff, state school facilities oversight authorities, and their SEA

How can ESSER funds be used?

LEAs can use this funding to implement COVID prevention efforts to bring as many students back for in-person instruction as possible, while still following current local health guidelines. Building renovation, and new construction plans may include Division 08/28 solutions, which can help to:

  • Reduce touchpoints
    • Limiting touchpoints throughout campus is a key tactic for creating a safe environment that allows schools to resume everyday activities. Because doors to classrooms and other areas across campus are a common and frequent touchpoint, touchless solutions can reduce the risk of virus or other germ transmission.
  • Improve the health, safety and security of school buildings by:

Incorporating the most effective Division 08/28 solutions into major renovations and new construction falls safely under the guidance of the US DoEd to:

  • Facilitate the safe return to in-person instruction
  • Maintain the continuity of education services
  • Safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools
  • Modify facilities as necessary to allow for physical distancing, while equitably addressing the immediate safety, academic, social, and emotional needs of students

Final approval of any Div. 08.28 solution(s) is at the discretion of the SEA.

Frequently Asked Questions

The US Department of Education has issued a Frequently Asked Questions document addressing the use of funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Program. Though no Div. 08/28 solutions are identified, endorsed/approved, or precluded, new construction and renovation sections (B-6 through B-8, pgs. 24-27) "encourage" that some pandemic-related justification be part of any new construction/renovation plan submittal by an LEA to their SEA. The bulk of the section reiterates that all normal K-12 building policies, procedures and codes must be followed. 

Relevant Highlights:

 May ESSER and GEER funds be used for construction? (B-6)

  • Yes. Construction is authorized under Title VII of the ESEA (Impact Aid) and therefore is an allowable use of GEER and ESSER funds. 
  • The definition of "construction" includes new construction as well as re-modeling, alterations, renovations, and repairs.
  • However, the [US Dept of Ed] discourages LEAs from using ESSER and GEER funds for new construction because this use of funds may limit an LEA's ability to support other essential needs or initiatives. Remodeling, renovation, and new construction are often time-consuming, which may not be workable under the shorter timelines associated with ESSER and GEER funds.
  • [New Construction/Renovation] are also subject to a number of additional Federal (and State) requirements.
  • While construction is generally allowable, it is the responsibility of a Governor, SEA, or LEA... to assure that...the cost [is] necessary and reasonable.
  • [New Construction/Renovation] should meet the overall purpose of the CARES Act, CRRSA Act, or ARP Act programs, which is "to prevent, prepare for, and respond to" COVID-19.
  • ...the burden remains on the [SEA's & LEA's] to maintain the appropriate documentation that supports the expenditure.

Resources

ASSA ABLOY, as the leading curb-to-core, total opening business partner, can make these solutions understandable and scalable, while digitizing survey and design information in order to limit education disruptions now and in the future. Contact us today to discuss any questions or challenges you may have.

Additional Resources: