Dec 28 2020

A Second Round of Federal Relief: An Important Next Step

This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.
but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

—Winston Churchill

The coronavirus has dominated every aspect of our country’s education system for the past 9 months. Who would have thought a year ago that terms like personal protective equipment, Zoom classrooms, and social distancing would have crept into our daily lexicon? During this time, teachers, principals, administrators, and policymakers have been under tremendous strain to deliver quality education to approximately 50 million public school students. A new bipartisan federal rescue package will supply public schools with additional financial support to help address the wide range of needs.

The question is, what will this long-awaited federal aid provide and will it be enough to allow schools to open safely and offer quality instruction?

New Federal Assistance to K–12 Schools

Congress has passed a $900 billion federal COVID-19 relief package that provides about $81.9 billion in education aid with $54.3 billion of this aid is targeted specifically to k–12 public education. The funding for primary and secondary education will be distributed through two different programs:

  • The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund ($54.3 billion): This program will distribute funds to states based on their Title I, Part A funding. States will in turn distribute at least 90% of these funds to districts based on the districts’ Title I, Part A funding, which is based on their proportions of low-income students. This fund provides an average of $1,065 per public school student, with per-pupil funding ranging from $422 (Utah) to $2,009 (District of Columbia). A state-by-state breakdown of both total and per-pupil funding from this program can be found here.
  • The Emergency Education Relief Grants to Governors ($4.1 billion): The act requires that the first $2.75 billion from this fund be distributed to private schools. The remaining $1.3 billion will be distributed to states using two formulas: 60% of the funds are based on a state’s population of 5- through 24-year-olds, and 40% is based on its number of Title I students. Governors can use these funds to support early learning, k–12 education, and higher education programs.

The federal aid package also provides $22.7 billion for a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and separate funding to support access to child care.

Allowable Funding Uses

The previously passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act also provided funding to public k–12 schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. The ESSER Fund provided districts with some flexibility in how they could spend this new money, but the funds could not be used to pay for budget shortfalls due to the pandemic. This new federal rescue package allows schools to use their new funding for all the activities outlined in the CARES Act and provides additional flexibility. For example, these funds can be used to support:

  • Meeting the needs of students furthest from opportunity: This can include any activity to address the unique needs of students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, students of color, students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care.
  • Supporting student well-being: This can include providing mental health services and trauma-informed supports. These funds can also be used to improve student engagement in distance learning, including by providing resources and assistance to parents to support their students.
  • Making up for lost instructional time: This can include using high-quality diagnostic assessments aligned with local curriculum to determine student need and providing evidence-based activities to accelerate student learning, such as evidence-based approaches to tutoring. This may also include providing after-school and summer programs or using other strategies to increase learning time.
  • Improving ventilation systems: This can include inspecting, maintaining, repairing, or replacing outdated or poorly functioning heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, which put students and staff at heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Education Budgets

While these additional federal dollars will help public schools, they will be insufficient to cover all the additional financial burdens brought about by the pandemic. The financial challenges include:

  • Decreased state education funding: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has estimated that state budgets will see a reduction of 11% this fiscal year and 10% in the next fiscal year. These state budget cuts due to declines in state revenue will negatively impact all public schools, but they will have a disproportionate impact on schools in low-wealth communities. These cuts will force many districts to reduce their teaching force when we need more teachers in schools than ever, both to enable physical distancing and to meet students’ increased learning needs. During the Great Recession, these cuts in teaching positions had the greatest impact on students of color and students from low-income families.
  • Increased costs to educate students during the pandemic: A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the cost of dealing with the virus in schools, including “materials and consumables, additional custodial staff members, and potential additional transportation,” is $442 per student, for a total national cost of $22.5 billion.
  • The long-term cost of COVID-19: Schools will need to provide students with extended learning time and other opportunities to address pandemic-related instructional loss, including through high-quality tutoring. LPI has estimated that the additional cost of providing 20 extra days of school per year over the next 2 years to be $74.5 billion. A high-quality tutoring program that provides 25% of students with one hour of tutoring per day in a small-group environment, and prepares, supports, and compensates tutors to ensure their work leads to students’ success in the classroom, could cost $36.2 billion.

A Helpful Second Step

Between the CARES Act ($13.2 billion) and this rescue package ($54.3 billion), public k–12 education in this country will receive up to $67.5 billion in federal stabilization funding. While this funding provides much-needed relief, it is over $100 billion short of what our public school systems would need to support students through the pandemic and address the ongoing impact of their disrupted learning. These funds are insufficient to stabilize the educator workforce and the educator pipeline—we are already seeing layoffs. Workforce instability will only exacerbate shortages in high-need fields and schools. It will also make it more difficult to engage in the physical distancing and support systems needed to open schools safely.

The End of the Beginning

The introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine and this second round of federal aid give many in the education community something they have been sorely lacking—hope. While we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it's important to remember we still have a long way to go to fully address the negative impacts of this pandemic on schools and students.