ESSER funding: your guide to what’s available, how to use it, and how we can help
Are you an educator or school district admin looking to learn more about how ESSER funding can be used in your school district, or seeking partners to use ESSER funds with?
Perhaps you’re a parent who has heard about ESSER but is looking to learn a little more so you can understand how your school district is (or isn’t) spending the record-breaking ESSER funds available? Either way, read on to learn more about what ESSER is, what’s possible with ESSER funds, and how Work ED can help school districts make sensible, sustainable plans with their ESSER funds.
Table of contents
What is ESSER?
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSER) was introduced as part of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security) introduced in March 2020 to help keep the economy and social systems going during lockdowns.
ESSER I was designed to create safer school spaces and to help schools support remote learning access and incentivize learning during the summer break. ESSER II and III were focused more on enabling a safe return to learning in the classroom, encouraging initiatives that help make up for learning loss, and ensuring equitability for historically disadvantaged groups (we go into further details of the differences between ESSER I, II and III below).
ESSER funds are awarded to state education agencies (SEAs), and it is then up to the SEA in any given state to proportion and award funding to local education agencies (LEAs) within the state, such as school districts, which oversee the running of several schools within their district.
States had to submit their plans by June 2021. Upon approval, states were then awarded two-thirds of funding, after which states again had to submit a funding plan for the final third. (Note that deadlines for LEAs to exercise their funds were further in the future.)
All states have submitted their plans, and you can see the breakdown of what each state received as well as links to published state plans here.
There are deadlines for each version of ESSER. You can see a detailed breakdown of key dates here, but the deadlines for obligating ESSER funds (which means committing them to a spending plan) are:
ESSER I funds needed to be obligated by September 30, 2022. ESSER I funds can no longer be obligated.
ESSER II funds must be obligated by September 30, 2023.
ARP ESSER (ESSER III) funds must be obligated by September 30, 2024.
(Note this does not mean that all funds have to be spent by this time—plans have to be submitted and approved but the spending of funds can go beyond these deadlines. As well, LEAs can use the “Tydings amendment” to carry over federal fund decision-making to the next financial year.)
What is the difference between ESSER I, II, and III?
The U.S. Federal Government has renewed the ESSER act twice, with ESSER III being the most up-to-date funding package.
All of the ESSER incarnations have similarities but also some important differences to note. The distribution of ESSER funds to states follows the Title 1 funding formula laid out in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (see an overview of how this formula is calculated here).
ESSER I was introduced as part of the CARES Act in May 2020, setting aside $13.2 billion for the following allowable uses:
Technologies that enabled education, such as software and laptops to support remote learning
Summer learning programs
Student mental health support and services
Support for disadvantaged subgroups
Allow schools and educational services to safely continue to operate and prepare for future impacts
ESSER II was introduced as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), signed into law in December 2020, and includes all the provisions included in ESSER I plus an additional $54.3 billion. The following allowable uses were added:
Helping schools safely reopen in line with CDC protocols
Addressing the learning that occurred during lockdowns
Improving indoor air quality
ESSER III is commonly referred to as ARP ESSER, as it was announced as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) in March 2021. ESSER III includes everything outlined in ESSER I and II including an additional $122 billion for K-12 education, making ESSER III by far the largest emergency relief fund. The following allowable use cases were added:
LEAs must use 20% of ARP ESSER funds 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.”
7.2 billion for the E-Rate program that helps discount telecommunications and internet costs for schools and libraries
800 million in “wraparound services,” which are aimed at developing community initiatives or the targeting of support for underserved communities, such as minorities or youth experiencing homelessness.
This was a high-level view of ESSER allowable uses—let’s get deeper into it in the next section.
What are ESSER funding allowable uses?
ESSER has a wide range of allowable uses, which is both a blessing and a curse for LEAs deciding how to use ESSER funds, as spending has to be justified.
Basically, there are two aspects to ESSER allowable uses:
Ensuring schools are safe and operationally viable to keep running after the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Helping students catch up on the learning loss and social and emotional development loss suffered during lockdowns in an effective and evidence-based manner.
So, on the one hand, ESSER can be used for physical improvements to schools designed to reduce the spread of Coronavirus (such as HVAC system maintenance and updates or purchasing air filtering devices). It can also be used to ensure that there are enough staff available for the number of students per school—either by hiring additional staff to replace those who left or improving the contracts of those that remain to retain staff (however, there are issues to watch out for here which we’ll cover in the “mistakes to avoid” section later). Of course, lockdowns didn’t just affect students—teachers and administrators also suffered stress and burnout—so ESSER can also be used to provide additional mental health support and training opportunities to school staff.
On the other hand, ESSER can fund programs that help students make up for “learning loss”: the reality of lost/disrupted learning during lockdowns that set students back from where they should be. This includes afterschool and enrichment programs outside of school hours, such as during summer and winter breaks. However, the wording is clear: learning loss programs must be evidence-based and effective. It is crucial that ESSER funds used for learning loss must be for high-quality and impactful services.
Remember in fact that for ARP ESSER/ESSER III funds LEAS must use 20% of funds for addressing learning loss (they can use more than 20% if they see the opportunity to do so).
Note also that SEAs can set their own requirements that LEAs must meet, and have the right to create an ESSER application process for LEAs. LEAs should ensure they are complying with their SEA.
Overview of what ESSER can be used for:
Addressing learning loss/supporting social-emotional development and equitable access:
Afterschool and enrichment programs
Social and emotional support for students
Software for student learning
Hardware such as laptops for students
Addressing the needs of students who require extra support, such as those from low-income families, those with disabilities, English language learners, students experiencing homelessness, children and youth in foster care
Improving student assessments to track student learning loss recovery progress, tracking student attendance, and helping assist and educate parents in how they can support students
Safety and continuity of school operations:
Addressing individual school resource needs
Physical maintenance of school buildings that support a safe and operational environment
Implementing protocols that are in line with CDC recommendations
Improving indoor air quality in schools
Improving systems and procedures for preparedness
Staff sanitation and diseases spread minimization training
Supplies for cleaning and sanitization
Long-term closure planning and procedures
Improving coordinated preparedness and responses between educational agencies to prevent, prepare for, and respond to, COVID-19
“Other activities” that help the LEA stay operational, continue to provide services and retain current staff.
Note that ESSER funds have not replaced other sources of funding. As the phrase goes, think “supplement, not supplant!” In fact, there’s a lot of overlap with previously established sources of funding.
In case of doubt, these allowable use guidelines are taken from the U.S. Department of Education’s ESSER FAQs document:
Any activity authorized by the ESEA, including the Native Hawaiian Education Act and the Alaska Native Educational Equity, Support, and Assistance Act.
Any activity authorized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Any activity authorized by the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA).
Any activity authorized by the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins V).
Any activity authorized by subtitle B of title VII of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (McKinney-Vento).
How are schools using ESSER funding?
Given there are so many allowable uses for ESSER funds, how are they being used in schools so far?
According to an analysis by Burbio, school districts have been spending ESSER III dollars on the following:
Academic intervention/learning loss: 27.4%
Facilities and operations: 23.9%
Mental and physical health: 7.2%
Miscellaneous Financials: 5.6%
As you can see, school districts have been spreading ESSER III funds between learning loss (27.4%), staffing (24.4%), and facilities and operations (23.9%).
While states submitted their ESSER spending plans in 2021, not all have been spending their allocation. In fact, you can use see exactly how much funding has been spent vs state allocation—and it’s often around a third or even 20% of what’s available (for example, Texas has $12.4 billion of ESSER funding available but has so far spent $4.4 billion as of publication).
ESSER fund amounts awarded by state
ESSER funds spent by state (as of Dec 31st, 2022)
Overview of funds awarded vs funds spent, state by state. Source: covid-relief-data.ed.gov
The fact is, many LEAs are not using the ESSER funds available to them. Some states, such as Oklahoma, have suggested they may reject federal education funding. There are some suggestions that school districts are responding negatively to the pressure to spend federal funding under such pressure and with inadequate time to make a sustainable plan.
ESSER mistakes to avoid
1. Using ESSER for recurring revenues such as teacher salaries
ESSER II funds run out in September 2023 and ESSER III funds in September 2024. If LEAs are using ESSER funds for long-term budgeting such as pay increases they may find themselves in a short fall when ESSER funds are no longer an option. So make sure ESSER investments are sustainable.
2. Not using ESSER funds before they’re gone!
Many LEAs are not using the ESSER funds available to them. In most cases, there is a large pot of money that can be used on a variety of things—and it's barely been touched. Use those funding dollars while they’re here—see the (long!) list of allowable uses above for inspiration, or reach out if you’d like help using ESSER to overcome learning loss.
3. Using ESSER funds just for the sake of it
Now, we just said that funds should be used before they’re gone—that doesn’t have to mean spending in ways that don’t make sense. Given the range of allowable use cases, it is likely that ESSER funds can be used to execute or help along already established strategies that states and LEAs have in place. For example, California has been making a big push for afterschool programming, which ESSER can be used to meet as addressing learning loss is an allowable use case—afterschool helps students gain extra skills outside of the school day.
4. Using ESSER funds in ways that don’t meet the allowable use criteria
LEAs and SEAs are required to report on how ESSER funds were used—and remember that because SEAs had to submit spending plans to the Federal Government previously, spending can be compared to plans.
5. Be put off by the extra work involved
Using ESSER funds may seem like an extra burden to school districts already dealing with staffing shortages and the everyday administration grind. However, using ESSER funding can be straightforward when engaging the right partner. Look for partners who are savvy with ESSER allowable use cases and will do the heavy lifting for you (hint: if you’re interested in using ESSER to address learning loss, we’re here and ready to help run afterschool, intersession and summer and winter learning programs—see below!).
How Work ED services help you use ESSER funding:
ESSER funding is complex and time-limited. That’s why we’ve focused on one aspect of it: addressing learning loss, and making sure we know the allowable uses inside and out so that we can deliver afterschool, intersession, and summer and winter learning programs for K-12 that make the most of funding.
Our programs are built on evidence-based frameworks (such as career technical education, work-based learning, and social-emotional learning) that give students the soft skills needed to take control of their learning—and get introduced to high-earning future careers.
We’ve designed programs to be equitable and inclusive to all learning styles and put an extra emphasis on building community wherever we run our programs, ensuring that the children and youth who are supposed to benefit from the wraparound services outlined above do so—and thrive.
However, while we make sure our services meet funding criteria, they are not dependent on any particular fund—we made programs that deliver quality whatever the funding source and aim to create lasting and sustainable relationships with the school districts and communities we run them in.
We are also driven by the need to close the skills gap in America—industries need skilled workers to keep the nation running, and young people deserve the opportunity to fill that skills gap through exposure to necessary, high-earning careers such as cybersecurity.
Below is a breakdown of how our programs meet ESSER funding criteria, and how we make running afterschool, intersession and summer and winter learning programs easy to setup and run in a sustainable, scalable way for years to come.
At Work ED, we run afterschool and enrichment programs (such as summer and winter breaks, intersession and all out-of-school time) designed to help school districts run them easily by:
Using well-tested curricula that introduce students to modern, career-ready skills that let students choose a high-earning career that suits them (including high-earning careers that don’t require a college degree)
Deploying our own set of high quality and enthusiastic staff to run programs who are well-trained in helping students find the best in themselves
Creating an environment that helps youth develop social and emotional skills using the CASEL social, emotional learning framework
Helping students of all socioeconomic circumstances and learning styles find an engaging and supportive environment
Fostering a sense of community by providing work experience opportunities to local high school students and inviting parents and caregivers to community days
Provide teacher training on modern, in-demand curricula, such as cybersecurity
Run the marketing and communications with students and parents to ensure strong attendance and retention
Offering our own proprietary technology to help run all aspects of programming
We hope that this overview has answered any questions you had about ESSER funding. If you’d like to chat more, reach out to email@example.com.