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Using Federal Stimulus Funds to Advance Equity and Opportunity


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.

The closure of schools due to the COVID-19 crisis has elevated for the public and policymakers what for some has been hidden in plain sight for decades: the deep inequities in access and opportunity among the country’s students, schools, and communities. Recent news stories about the markedly different experience of students and educators abound. For example, in Glastonbury, Connecticut, a predominantly white and upper-income community, every student went home with an iPad loaded with resources to transition learning from school to home. Sixty miles and a world away, the experience of students in Bridgeport, Connecticut—a district serving largely students of color and with significantly fewer resources—was far different. With little technology infrastructure in the school district and uneven access at home, Bridgeport educators and families are still trying to piece together solutions to mitigate the disruptions to students’ learning.

The sentiment of many witnessing this divide is captured by a member of the Bridgeport Board of Education, “I am literally weeping for our children’s future. I am becoming increasingly concerned about a long term closure and the effect it will have on our students falling further and further behind their suburban peers.”

These long-standing inequities in school and family resources will not be ameliorated overnight. But districts and states can make policy and practice decisions in the coming weeks and months that both respond to current needs and chip away at gaps in opportunity and access. One of these opportunities is the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides early childhood settings, schools, and districts with nearly $16.75 billion in federal funds to help address some aspects of this crisis.

Districts and states can make policy and practice decisions in the coming weeks and months that both respond to current needs and chip away at long-standing gaps in opportunity and access.

These are unprecedented times for education leaders, who rightly spent the first few weeks of school closures focused on triaging immediate needs, including providing meals for children who get most of their daily sustenance at school and child care solutions for children of essential workers. In states and districts committed to maintaining learning, the next most pressing efforts were focused on providing students with computers and internet access. In San Francisco, for example, the district provided hotspots to low-income communities, as well as to students who are homeless, living in shelters, in foster care, and/or are newcomers, and devices to 5,200 students. The district estimates it will need to deliver about 5,000 more in the coming weeks.

Now, as we all adjust to this “new normal,” it’s important to pause, assess long-term goals and needs, and rely on evidence-based practices to guide future investments.  The following represent five high-leverage and equity-focused uses of CARES Act dollars, designed to build systems, structures, and supports that increase long-term capacity and produce immediate benefits for historically underserved students.

1. Double-Down on Equity-Focused Investments. Although every student and family will eventually be touched by the COVID-19 crisis, the impact will be disproportionately felt among  those marginalized by income, race, language, immigration status, or disability status. While stimulus funds can be used for state and district-wide activities that benefit all students, now is not the time to back away from equity-focused investments. Instead, states and districts should use stimulus dollars to build the capacity of schools located in areas of concentrated poverty. Investments should be designed to meet short-term needs, while also addressing the long-term impact of this crisis for the most vulnerable students. These high-impact strategies at the k-12 level include investing in a high-quality teacher workforce, providing instructional supports and quality curriculum, and reducing class sizes and other strategies to allow for more personalized learning.

2. Build Distance Learning Capacity. Technology investments are no doubt at the top of the list for many school district leaders.  CARES funds can be used to purchase technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity) that supports substantive educational interaction between students and teachers, focusing on students from low-income families and students with disabilities, such as through the use of assistive technology or adaptive equipment. But new devices or internet connections will be of limited effectiveness if teachers are not supported in learning how to shift their instruction and adapt lessons to a distance learning environment. Additional school staff, such as guidance counselors and social workers, also need support to learn how to effectively use technology to deliver services to students. State and local technology investments should be paired with stimulus funds and Title II allocations to provide research-based professional development on the uses of technology for high-quality learning. To be most effective, the professional development should be collaborative, sustained, and job-embedded.

3. Attend to the Social and Emotional Needs of Students and Staff. This is a stressful time for students, families, and educators and the availability of mental health supports will be critical to advancing teaching and learning. Fortunately, districts and states can use CARES funds to bolster or scale up federally funded programs and services to meet short- and long-term needs. For example, the new dollars can supplement services and supports funded through the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program. These can include activities to address the social, emotional, and academic needs of students; to increase student access to guidance counselors and social workers (and provide them with the training they need to deliver these services online); and to mount surveys to gauge the mental health and well-being of students and staff during and after the immediate crisis.

Funds can also be used to begin or deepen investments in community schools, which are an effective long-term strategy for meeting the ongoing academic, health, and wellness needs of our country’s most marginalized students and families. In times of crisis, when the already frayed social safety net is insufficient to meet the basic needs of students and families, community schools are stepping in to fill the gap. States and districts can use stimulus dollars to jump-start the development of community schools that provide health, mental health, and social services to children and families alongside supportive instruction, and to build infrastructure and expertise to provide technical assistance to schools implementing this approach.  

4. Address Lost Learning Time. Many students will likely lose months of critical learning time as a result of COVID-19-related school closures. While work is underway to make the most of what remains of the academic year, now is the time to begin planning for summer school and other expanded learning strategies—such as starting the school year earlier—to address lost learning time. The CARES Act explicitly calls out the importance of providing these extended learning opportunities to students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care. Summer school programs are most effective when focused on remediating gaps, accelerating learning or enrichment, and providing more individualized and small-group instruction. A number of schools, districts, and states have identified innovative ways to use time and resources to personalize learning to address gaps that are caused or exacerbated by lost learning time. These and other strategies will be even more critical, given the COVID-19 disruptions.  

5. Sustain access to early care and education (ECE). During the Great Recession, ECE programs experienced significant budget cuts—and in some cases have still not returned to pre-Great Recession spending levels. The CARES Act provides $3.5 billion in funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program and $750 million for the Head Start Program (up to $500 million of these funds can be used to operate supplemental summer programs). Targeting stimulus funding to maintain access to high-quality ECE is key to addressing k-12 achievement gaps. Vermont is one of many states providing financial assistance to all ECE providers (subsidized and private) to cover their costs and pay early educators in full to ensure that programs do not close due to tuition loss. Tennessee, for its part, is partnering with an early education online platform provider to make publicly available videos demonstrating instructional activities parents can do with their children on literacy, early math, health, and well-being.

Leading With Equity

The CARES Act is an important first step in federal support for schools in a time of crisis and must be followed by additional and sustained investments. Over the coming months—and likely years—despite the need for difficult budget choices, we must refuse to retreat from federal and state investments in education, especially those targeted towards the students furthest from opportunity.

Investments and strategies that have been shown to advance equity and support the academic success of students during a “typical“ school year will be essential to supporting students and educators in times of disruption.  While it may be tempting to use CARES Act funds for a “quick fix” (such as a turnkey distance learning system), the most strategic investments are those that build local capacity to support all students—and especially the most marginalized—both throughout the school year and in times of crisis.