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By Amanda Dodge • April 25, 2022

ESSER Funding: What you can and can't purchase with it

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) provided more than $122 billion to schools across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. These funds were fully distributed by December 2021, with the goal of helping schools return to full, in-person instruction. As of the start of 2022, 96 percent of K-12 public schools are open fully for in-person learning. 

As schools receive their ESSER funding, they have to decide how to spend the relief money. Here are 10 things you can purchase with this funding.

ESSER-Side-By-Side

Image credit: Schoolinks

1. Invest in Digital Teaching Tools

The pandemic highlighted the multitude of ways for students to learn online. Educators can use their school’s funding to continue investing in digital resources and other technology. The goal is to connect students to the material using engaging online environments. Just because school has returned to in-person instruction doesn’t mean technology doesn’t need to be part of the learning process. 

2. Improve Your Technological Infrastructure 

Use your funding to buy computers, tablets, and other digital devices that allow students to continue taking advantage of online resources. With this grant, you may be able to create 1:1 classrooms where each student has a computer or you can debt a VR lab, coding club, or robotics team. 

3. Increase Your Support Staff, Substitutes, and Employees

COVID protocols and teacher burnout lead to staffing shortages throughout the 2021-2022 school year. According to the EdWeek Research Center, 40 percent of district leaders and principals described their staff shortages as severe or very severe. 

ESSER funding can be used to pay for additional substitute teachers and for increased full-time staff. Schools can also use this money to bring on administrative resources (such as librarians and technology specialists) to better facilitate digital learning. 

4. Make School Repairs to Reduce Health Hazards

Due to closures during the 2020-2021 school year, some districts were forced to delay repair projects and other school improvements. These can be covered by the ESSER grant if they help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other potential pathogens. 

For example, a district could use the funds to replace the HVAC system within a school if the advanced filtration and airflow prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria. 

5. Redesigning Classrooms to Promote Health and Wellness

Along with school-wide repairs to improve infrastructure, schools can invest in furniture and other items to redesign the classroom experience. These changes can help prevent the spread of illness in the classroom and they can improve opportunities for collaboration and social-emotional learning. 

6. Purchase PPE and Other Pandemic Resources 

ESSER funding can be used to purchase masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, and other safety essentials. These are used to prevent the spread of germs, bacteria, and viruses, limiting the potential for COVID-19 cases. 

7. Create Programs to Track and Reduce Learning Loss

Parents and educators are still working to understand the amount of unfinished learning the COVID-19 pandemic caused. One thing they know: some students are farther behind than others. Researchers at McKinsey and Co. estimate that students on average are five months behind in math and four months behind in learning.

Your district can allocate its ESSER funds to introduce programs that track and reduce this learning loss gap. 

8. Provide After-School and Summer School Activities

After-school programs and summer school are two ways that schools can target perceived loss. The ESSER funding can cover expenses related to staffing these activities and covering the supplies to make the lessons engaging and valuable for students. 

9. Debut Programs to Connect Families to the Classroom

Parents, guardians, and family members are incredibly powerful resources to teachers. When parents are involved in the education process, their kids can thrive. Schools can use their ESSER grants to create programs that keep parents engaged in school activities while making the school a valuable community resource. 

10. Offer Mental Health and Emotional Support Programs

The pandemic placed emotional stress on kids and adults alike. Many students felt the financial crunches that their parents went through and may know someone who died because of the virus. According to a survey by the Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 71 percent of parents said the pandemic took a toll on their child’s mental health. 

Your school can be a resource for students to get mental health care so they can emotionally process the next two years. 

What You Can’t Purchase With ESSER Funding

When the ESSER grant program first debuted, there was some confusion about which programs would be covered with the money. These programs do not have a “supplement not supplant” provision, which means they do not have to be used to improve existing programs. Instead, they can be used for new investments and projects that help schools bounce back after the pandemic.

According to the District Management Group, these funds can be used for “virtually

any reasonable educational expense.” However, your state board of education and school district may have limits on what your school can use the funds for. You also may need to work within your department to use the funding. Learn more about regional guidelines and how you can apply them to your vision. 

eSpark Aligns with ESSER Funding

Our team at eSpark is passionate about combining learning with fun. We create standards-based games, videos, and digital activities that allow students to work independently. Our games can be used to help teachers close learning gaps during school, as well as through after-school and summer school programs.  

Every activity we develop ties back toward student learning and national curriculum goals. For more information on using federal funding on edtech services, visit our grants and funding page.

When does ESSER funding need to be spent? 

The deadline to spend ESSER funds is September 30, 2022–2024, depending on whether you received ESSER I, II, or III. This means state education agencies, local districts, and schools have time to plan how they are going to use the money. Some districts already have plans in place and are executing them to help students catch up after the pandemic. 

Can music teachers use ESSER funding? 

Music, physical education, art, and technology instructors can all use ESSER funding if their district and school allow it. A few ways music teachers can use these funds include funding summer activities, creating after-school programs, and investing in music technology. Music connects students to the learning process and can help them thrive in other classes. 

Can ESSER funds be used for salaries?

ESSER funding can be used to pay teacher salaries. The money can be used to prevent layoffs and to increase staffing, which reduces the student-to-teacher ratio. With smaller classes and more educators, teachers can spend more time with individual students to help them reduce the learning loss caused by the pandemic.

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