How Federal COVID Relief Dollars Are Helping States and Districts Invest in Early Education

States and districts should take advantage of federal relief dollars to ensure all children get off to a solid start
Blog Post
Oct. 13, 2022

In March of 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which included an unprecedented $122 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund (known as ESSER III). Like previous ESSER investments, these funds were provided to state educational agencies and school districts to address safe school reopening and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on students, requiring an emphasis on addressing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on students of color.

All 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico, had their state plans approved by the US Department of Education (ED) by the end of December 2021. States have until late 2024 to properly obligate and use their ESSER III funds. However, given the myriad of issues affecting fund expenditure in 2022, ED will consider requests from school districts for an 18-month extension on spending these funds beyond the earlier September 30, 2024 deadline, in order to allow state and local education agencies better plan for and complete school infrastructure projects.

ESSER III funds can be used for early childhood education. For example, the funds can be used to prevent staff layoffs or service cuts in Head Start, state-funded pre-K programs, and child care programs that are operated by local education agencies (LEAs). In October of 2021, we laid out possible ways to leverage this funding specifically in support of effective early childhood transitions. Another way states are using funds to support early learning is through summer learning or afterschool activities.

According to analysis by FutureEd, nearly 60 percent of school districts and charter schools plan to use their funds this way. And, some larger districts (including Chicago, San Diego, and Hawaii) expressly state that their summer learning programs support transitions—notably, in kindergarten and other early elementary years.

In Massachusetts, summer learning opportunities aim to tackle the loss of both academic and social-emotional learning for students of all ages. For the youngest students entering kindergarten, first grade, and second grade (two cohorts also drastically impacted by out of school time during the pandemic) millions of dollars are being dedicated to targeted literacy academies that provide young learners with opportunities to both learn and socialize with peers. Another Massachusetts summer program, Summer Step Up, directs the use of ESSER funds toward solving dipping enrollment rates by identifying families with young children in the early grades that were eligible to enroll in Massachusetts public schools in the 2020–21 school year but who may have opted out of school district services.

South Carolina’s state ESSER plan provides an express focus on early learning by dedicating funds for training and instructional materials in schools where one-third or more of third graders struggled on 2019 statewide reading and math assessments. The state plan also lays out a partnership with SC First Steps, a program that supports students transitioning into pre-K and kindergarten by engaging parents, focusing on teacher recruitment and retention, and identifying children with special needs early.

Hawaii is also using these funds to address special needs in early learners, by focusing on teaching the behaviors that may be a challenge for young children with little to no school experience as they enter kindergarten.

In North Dakota, ESSER funds are being used to fund high-quality pre-K classrooms for four-year-olds through grants that are available to public, private, and religious child care providers, indicating an emphasis on providing early learning opportunities through a mixed-delivery system. The state is also dedicating funds so an additional 800 preschool-aged children can participate in the Waterford Upstart program, which will provide online early literacy lessons to the most rurally located children and give them opportunities to begin learning prior to the start of kindergarten.

Some states are using additional funds on programs to provide targeted support and early intervention for children with special needs and dual language learners to set them up for success as they transition into the K–12 system. In California, the Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) Grant requires districts to use at least 10 percent of their grant to address the impact of lost instructional time to hire paraprofessionals. The paraprofessionals will provide supplemental instruction and support through the duration of the ELO program. The supplemental instruction and support must be prioritized for English learners and students with disabilities.

In Illinois, Chicago Public Schools is using $25 million of federal funds to hire and train 850 local residents for a district-wide Tutor Corps that will focus on helping students most impacted by the pandemic. The tutors will be trained on strategies for working with dual language learners so they are prepared to improve educational outcomes for the district’s over 70,000 multilingual learners.

New Jersey provided $600 million over three years to offer an additional year of school for special education students who would have aged out otherwise, and Newark Public Schools has used federal funds to offer free classes in English and Spanish to families in various parts of the city to help them more easily navigate the school system and assist with student learning at home.

The state of Ohio spent $2.2 million of federal funds to launch a virtual, personalized tutoring program that supports over 2,000 families of students with IEPs by connecting them to virtual tutors. Early data and observations from students and educators found that the program has led to an increase in student educational success, and is being used to determine future program funding levels.

The impacts on young children from the pandemic will likely be felt for years to come, so it’s imperative that states and districts take advantage of federal relief dollars to ensure all children get off to a solid start. The examples listed above are just a few ways that funds can be used to support early learning. As federal relief dollars run out and a potential recession looms, states and districts will have to be creative in finding ways to sustain and grow these critical investments in early education. Leveraging other federal and state funding programs would be a good start.

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