Feb 23 2023

6 Creative Ways to Spend K–12 ESSER Funds Before They Expire

ESSER II funds expire in September 2023. Here’s how K–12 schools can spend that money before it disappears.

Three stimulus bills passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021 provided nearly $190.5 billion to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.

Many district leaders invested extra dollars into devices and connectivity initially, which may leave them searching for a way to allocate remaining funds. The requirements accompanying the funds may feel daunting, especially with the likelihood of future funding audits.

Adding to the pressure, time is running out to spend the money. ESSER II funds must be spent by September 2023, and remaining ESSER III funds must be allocated by September 2024.

“The clock is ticking for districts to make the most of this opportunity,” McKinsey analysts report.



Fortunately, the ESSER spending requirements cast a wide net. Schools can spend the federal dollars in support of the social, emotional and mental health, safety and academic needs of students. Student engagement and safety are two categories schools can take advantage of when budgeting for ESSER spending.

As the deadline approaches, K–12 leaders can consider these six creative uses for ESSER funds:

1. Build Out K–12 STEM and Robotics Programs

Schools can use ESSER funds in support of their science, engineering, technology and math programs. They can look to solutions such as robotics kits, lab equipment, coding and math tools, and electronic equipment as they seek to jump-start their science and technology offerings.

K–12 STEM learning opportunities are key to post-pandemic catch-up efforts. Schools can allocate funds to these programs as a way to negate learning loss.

STEM programs “affect long-term learning trajectories and post-secondary education major choices,” says U.S. Department of Education Deputy Secretary Cynthia Marten. “Moreover, STEM education can also provide relevant, problem-, place-, and project-based learning experiences that support students in learning new content and concepts.”

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2. Create Modern, Flexible Learning Spaces with New Furniture

Valued at $1.9 billion in 2022, school furniture is a booming market, with growing demand for flexible seating in classrooms driving product demand. Flexible seating can “provide comfortable ergonomic options, handle the body weight of students and provide ample room for movement. Multiple seating options, including chairs, yoga balls, couches and springy stools have been gaining traction,” Grandview Research reports.

New desks and chairs, variable-height tables, utility carts, podium carts and other furniture upgrades can help schools design flexible classrooms and learning spaces that support interaction and collaboration. This upgraded furniture can also keep students engaged in learning, supporting schools’ reopening and student engagement initiatives.

DISCOVER: Four ways to personalize learning and teach self-management to students.

3. Get in the Game with Competitive Esports Equipment

Esports, or competitive video gaming, is “a mammoth and growing ecosystem,” according to the International Society for Technology in Education. Ninety percent of teens play video games, making it an activity that is fueled by students, many of whom are “flocking to the lucrative esports world” with its promise of college scholarships.

Schools can support emerging esports clubs and teams by investing ESSER funds in gaming computers, highly responsive gaming mice and keyboards, quality headsets and specialized gaming furniture. Given the high level of student interest, “it makes sense that educators should tap into this phenomenon,” ISTE reports.

Esports has been shown to reach students who otherwise may not have a reason to come to school or engage academically. ESSER funds, allocated to improve student engagement, can be funneled into esports programs for these reasons.

4. Keep Staff Connected with Radios and Communication Products

K–12 districts are investing in radios and security-related communications, with 83 percent of public schools providing two-way radios to staff, according to Pew Research. These communications tools are used not only in the event of emergencies but also to help school staff communicate with buses and other departments within the district.

Schools can tap ESSER funds to extend these efforts. Investments in radio equipment, notification systems and other communication technologies support enhanced school safety, an ESSER priority.

MORE ON EDTECH: Get tips for mitigating safety risks in K–12 schools.

5. Detect Vaping and THC Use in Schools with Environmental Sensors

Vaping, a common term for the use of electronic cigarettes, is rampant in K–12 schools.

In Florida, for example, recent data from the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) showed the number of reported tobacco and vaping incidents was “over six times higher than the number of reported fighting incidents.”

“Keeping in mind that while most fights in schools are detected by school officials, e-cigarette violations are often not detected, making this data even more concerning,” PASS reports.

2.5 million

The number of U.S. middle and high school students using e-cigarettes in 2022

Source: CDC.gov, “Notes from the Field: E-cigarette Use Among Middle and High School Students — United States, 2022,” Oct. 7, 2022

Vape sensors can help K–12 officials address the issue. These specialized devices, which may be purchased with ESSER funds in the pursuit of student safety, detect chemical components of the vapors produced by e-cigarettes.

“Vape sensors help address the difficulties school officials have encountered in trying to visually detect e-cigarette use through live, in-person student supervision,” PASS reports.

6. Upgrade to Next-Generation Security Cameras

Video cameras already are popular in K–12 buildings: Pew Research reports 91 percent of schools use video cameras in support of school security. This may include cameras that watch the front door, monitor the periphery and track activity within the building.

ESSER dollars can fund efforts to make the best use of next-generation security camera capabilities. Schools may choose to invest in wireless cameras, for example, as well as in analytic software and AI-supported cameras that process data in the cloud. This can result in a higher level of situational awareness and rapid response for school IT and security teams.

MORE ON FUNDING: Answers to commonly asked E-rate questions.

With the ESSER deadline approaching, schools should look to leverage this unique public funding opportunity. By investing in technology, tools and equipment, they can elevate the learning experience while also making schools safer and stronger for the long term.


ESSER Infographic
Illustration by Brian Stauffer, Getty Images/JuiceBros (students); JohnnyGreig (yoga ball); Fonikum (icons); Bounward (icons); RyanKing999 (mouse)

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