June 15, 2020
When the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Fund (CARES) Act passed in late March, preK-12 schools and districts were just beginning to navigate the unprecedented world of pandemic pedagogy, with little idea of what the remaining school year would bring. The obstacles of emergency learning and remote instruction have become nearly universal, compounding the existing challenges of access to materials through digital learning. Now, as the deadline approaches for CARES Act funding (state applications are due July 1), schools and districts are both looking to understand the best use for these funds and develop concrete plans for remote and blended learning over the coming months and year.
The CARES Act provides a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to assist early learning providers, elementary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions in offsetting costs incurred as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Of this, $3 billion are allocated to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which can be used by state governors to help sustain both K-12 and higher education institutions, on a “need based” basis (although the definition of “need” in this context remains opaque). Another $13.5 billion is allocated for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, which state education agencies (SEAs) can use for many different purposes, including “all activities authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” The remaining nearly $14.3 billion is allocated to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
The Act requires SEAs to use 90% of their funds to make subgrants to individual school districts (LEAs), to be disbursed based on FY2019 Title I formula. This means the vast majority of ESSER funds will soon be in the hands of school districts who are, at this moment, grappling with the challenges of the past four months while trying to plan for different possible scenarios for the fall.
One good option districts should consider for this spending is to advance open education. Open educational resources, or OER, are materials that anyone can retain, revise, reuse, remix, and redistribute. In other words, educators and students can access these high-quality materials for free and use them as they wish, making them widely accessible, affordable, and useful—three priorities that many states have on their minds as they deal with anticipated state budget cuts and uncertain school year plans.
Members of the OER community, led by Foresight Law + Policy, a national education law firm based in Washington, DC, outline a number of options available to states looking to use part of their ESSER funds in this way. Of their recommendations, two stand out that are pertinent to preK-12: use OER to strengthen online learning and train teachers to use OER for online learning.
The recommendations, which you can read in full here, explain that both ESSER and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund monies can be used for any purpose authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This includes, as the recommendation document explains, “making high-quality instructional content widely available to students through a state repository of OER or district adoption.” Schools and districts already using OER typically access resources through a large repository, such as OER Commons, or through their state’s repository—curated and maintained by those individual states for their own use but open and available to anyone looking to access them. While these resources are free to access, use, and share, building and curating them, making them widely known, and providing guidance on how to access and use them can be costly. Using CARES Act funding to build out this infrastructure presents an efficient use of funding that may go a long way in addressing multiple problems—cost, availability, instructional and material quality—that states and districts are facing.
The second option for this funding to come from Foresight Law + Policy—using it to guide teachers in using OER—goes hand in hand with making these materials widely available. Helping educators and school leaders understand both the benefits of OER and how to use them is essential, and, as the recommendations say, “this investment can support training [them] to effectively use OER online. [This includes] using OER to promote student collaboration and engagement and applying online learning best practices.” Students are certainly not the only ones grappling with online learning, and preparing educators to practically use resources is just as important as making those resources quality and accessible. And at a time when many states are weighing their options for re-opening, tools and guidance for teaching that are useful in any setting are a worthwhile investment.
With a July 1st deadline looming and school year planning quick on the horizon, states have big decisions to make in how they spend these stimulus dollars. Investing in OER is one possibility for not only addressing cost, efficiency, and instructional quality, but for translating one-time funding into a sustainable effort that could help schools and districts in more ways than one.