After the COVID-19 pandemic uprooted the core staples of public education, school leaders gained access to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). The initiative allocated $190 billion to maintain and improve the millions of school ecosystems that had experienced massive disruption. But many leaders are fretting about how to maximize their stimulus funds.
Time, or the lack thereof, presents one reason for this anxiety. To be exact, the window to invest the money comes to a decisive close in 2024, and at the time of this writing, we have officially crossed the halfway mark for when the opportunity vanishes. But despite the pressure, 75% of school leaders report obstacles that stop them from maximizing the benefit.
This article aims to untangle the complexities involved with ESSER funds, and sheds light on how principals can use those dollars in a way that creates little risk and ends with high returns.
Understanding the Issues School Leaders Face
In a nutshell, districts are in a state of catch-22. On one hand, leaders face immediate needs that require action, but they’re also tasked with long-term priorities. Add in administrative hurdles, compliance issues, and procurement red tape, and these complexities make investing more of a chore than an opportunity.
So, what’s exactly on the average school leader’s mind? In a survey conducted by McKinsey and Company, decision-makers report the following roadblocks that impede their most pertinent investment:
- 42% deal with complex and unclear compliance standards.
- 38% face teacher hiring challenges.
- 37% cite a lack of quality vendors to supply goods and services.
- 32% receive too little support from procurement teams.
- 30% gained late access to stimulus funds.
- 28% recognize a shortage of voices in how the money should be spent.
- 28% weigh competing priorities across academic departments.
- 15% point to an absence of budget planning.
- 11% wait on decisions from higher-ranking officials.
- 7% report no challenges in strategic funding allocation whatsoever.
Those issues lead to a major question. What if school leaders miss out on $20 billion in funds that could improve student outcomes? According to the previously mentioned McKinsey report, this is the amount of money that could go unused if it isn’t invested by the 2024 deadline.
Though the particulars are flexible, and the bureaucracy is beyond tedious, it’s obvious where school leaders believe the money must go.
School leaders have voiced their concerns. While decision-makers must jump over some (perhaps needlessly) complex hurdles, the mission is clear. The real ROI happens when investment dollars are put toward creating more positive student outcomes.
But what does that entail?
The pandemic hit youngsters particularly hard. COVID-caused learning delays derailed many children’s academic progression, meaning that teachers are spending more time playing catch-up and less time building on the knowledge students would already have under normal circumstances.
When you factor in a growing mental health crisis, the need for student-focused investment makes itself even more abundantly clear. A survey administered by the Washington Post cited a crisis of social–emotional wellness exacerbated by the pandemic.
Some 70% of schools saw an increased demand for mental health services, and with that sobering figure, faculty and staff members share worries about their students’ depression, anxiety, and trauma. Despite this critical call to action, only half of these schools reported having the means to provide these vital resources.
Furthermore, the pandemic has left many students behind — both academically and socially. To figure out what that means for a working teacher, we looked to our network to get the most accurate portrait. Our team reached out to Laura O., a second-grade teacher from Lexington, Kentucky, who gave us details that put a human face on all this cold data.
“The pandemic ripped a foundational and essential experience of education away from my students,” she told us. “The second graders I have this year never went through traditional kindergarten, where they would learn how to communicate, share, and work with independence. Now that these kids are entering second grade without these critically necessary skills, they are unable to manage feelings or concentrate on their schoolwork without individualized support.
“In a classroom of 28 to 32 kids, without an instructional aide, the students are not getting the support they need. Part of the issue stems from poor mental health created and worsened by the pandemic. [My students] are still so young, and yet, the ravages of depression and anxiety have already taken a toll. The other end of the equation comes from their lack of foundational learning, not just in matters of academic progress, but in social–emotional intelligence.”
When we asked for Laura’s opinion on how decision-makers should allocate their ESSER funds before the money evaporates, she told us this quite plainly: “Teachers need training to mitigate student anxiety. We need tools and resources that help us deal with unexpected behaviors that upend everything we were taught about classroom management. We need administrative support and a louder voice in the selection of professional development.”
Supporting Teachers to Help Students
While no one teacher can possibly speak for a community of millions, it is clear that Laura’s thoughts conclude with a universal truth. Students receive support when teachers receive support. Specifically, teachers need training to navigate and lessen the severity of student anxiety, help students catch up in the wake of pandemic-related academic delays, provide resources for improved mental health, educate children who work with learning differences, and leverage technology that proved its worth during the shutdowns.
Mitigating Student Anxiety
Student-focused spending involves using ESSER funds, in part, to understand and recognize anxiety dysfunction. The training your teachers need will show them how to prevent the escalation of anxiety while revealing how trained clinicians handle the condition.
Helping Students Who’ve Fallen Behind
Many students are lagging behind after the pandemic denied them full access to education. That means motivation is key. In using your investment dollars, consider training that shows teachers how to instill grit and curiosity in their students. You can take advantage of professional development that empowers educators to create a classroom environment that sparks the desire to learn.
Increasing Quality Mental Health
Trauma is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Your teachers need tools to recognize the various types of trauma — and specifically, how these issues impact behavioral habits and academic performance. You can invest ESSER funds in training that highlights strategies on how to cope with life’s struggles in support groups, peer counseling, and community programs.
Navigating Learning Differences
To help your faculty in a way that transforms student success, consider using investment dollars for training in how to maximize learning for kids with learning differences. Teachers require tools to create flexible assignments and foster a positive, inclusive, and welcoming classroom environment.
There were not too many upsides to the shutdown; however, we did confirm that classroom technology can go a long way in keeping the academic gears grinding. In this regard, consider using ESSER investment money to equip your teachers with the knowledge to use digital tools that enhance their students’ learning and prepare them for the future.