Feb 21 2023

What Do Today’s K–12 Schools Look Like After Help from ESSER?

Schools say the one-time federal funds have been desperately needed to support classroom and IT infrastructure upgrades.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the United States with a public education emergency. As districts scrambled to offer effective remote instruction, the federal government directed nearly $200 billion to K–12 schools, allowing them to invest in programming, personnel and IT infrastructure.

However, support through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund came with mandates requiring districts to spend three separate rounds of funding by September 2022, September 2023 and September 2024. 

EdTech brought together a panel of IT and educational leaders to discuss how they’ve invested ESSER money so far, how they’re spending down remaining funds and how they plan to sustain their investments over time.



The roundtable included Michelle Bourgeois, CTO for St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado; Chantell Manahan, technology director for the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County in Indiana; Sarah Radcliffe, director of future ready learning for the School District of Altoona in Wisconsin; and Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools in Michigan.

EDTECH: What are some of the most important investments your district has made with ESSER funds? 

Zachery-Ross: We received more than $20 million in ESSER funding. We made audio and video upgrades to classrooms, we provided internet access to our students, and we rolled out tablets or Chromebooks to all students in pre-K through grade 12.

Bourgeois: We received more than $33 million in ESSER funds. We focused our initial purchases on making sure teachers would have a high-quality connection with their students. So, we very quickly evaluated and purchased high-end microphones and video cameras to supplement the camera that’s built into their laptop. 

We also used the funding for student connectivity, and we purchased hotspots where connections weren’t available. Before the pandemic, we were not one-to-one with devices for our elementary students, and so we quickly pivoted to expanding technology access at that grade level.

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Manahan: In total, we received just over $6 million. Infrastructurewise, we’ve made investments in switches, cabling, wiring and those kinds of things. We already had a sustainable plan for devices, so we were very fortunate that we did not have to spend any of the extra money there. We did purchase some data analytics capabilities to help us better understand student performance. That has allowed us to intentionally examine the data and move the needle to make sure that we are recovering and that students are moving forward. 

Radcliffe: Our district received about $2.6 million. We spent part of that on 400 tablets and Chromebooks for students, devices for teachers and mobile hotspots. We also put voice amplification systems into our classrooms. That’s a big, one-time expenditure, and it would have been a really difficult project to implement without the ESSER funding.

DIG DEEPER: Use these best practices for balancing budgets with ESSER funding.

EDTECH: What impact has this funding had on students?

Zachery-Ross: Some of our ESSER funds went toward paying down the district’s debt, which was important because that debt was an impediment to us being able to attract and retain staff. We also hired mental health support staff. 

The classroom audio and video upgrades were really important when we were requiring masks because it ensured that students could hear their teachers. Today, our teachers are using the equipment to record their lessons for students as well as for instructional coaching.

Bourgeois: When we thought about our ESSER funding, we considered two big drivers of student success. One is the human connection that happens between students and teachers. We know that when students feel seen and valued by their teacher as individuals, they’re more likely to stay connected to learning. So that was a primary consideration in our thinking about remote learning. 

The second driver is the level of engagement that we provide through learning activities, making sure those were authentic, that they felt personal and that they were relevant.

Manahan: We spent some of the early money for extra cleaning and long-term substitute teachers. Then, in later funding rounds, we felt that was our chance to do some “moonshot” thinking about things we have always wanted to do. We set up a Montessori preschool in one of our school buildings. 

We also devoted some of the funds to salary and benefits and piloted a position that we call an online safety specialist. She monitors our content filter, all day, every day, and then she meets individually with students who are either misbehaving or are being flagged for things like grief, self-harm or depression. She deals with bullying issues. It’s allowed us to be more proactive in helping our students be good digital citizens.

EDTECH: Given that these were one-time funds, how will your district sustain ESSER-funded programs?

Zachery-Ross: In 2018, voters passed a 10-year sinking fund, and we’re going to allocate some of that money to device refreshes.

Radcliffe: Knowing this funding wouldn’t be permanent, we spent time last year scaling back on what we purchased by having stakeholder groups decide what learning tools we still needed moving forward. So, we’ve already reduced the number of subscriptions for certain services.

The one-time influx of devices did throw off our replacement cycle, but we’re still planning to stagger our refresh. Some devices will need to be replaced after three years, while others can be pushed to five or even six years, depending on the device and how it is used.

Manahan: When we made our initial decisions about how to spend ESSER funds, we did get pushback from some teachers — and even from some administrators — who were disappointed that their project didn’t get funded. Having to say no up front wasn’t easy, but we didn’t want to fund projects and then take them away from people three years later. We knew we couldn’t live beyond our means and expect that to be sustainable.

After all of the one-time costs of setting it up, the preschool we established is now self-sustaining through user fees. We’re looking to sustain the online safety specialist through a state school safety grant, which is how districts help fund their school resource officers. We would possibly be the first district in the state to use those funds in this way.

I think there’s a public perception that schools got this influx of money that should solve all of our problems, but that’s just not the case. The funding was desperately needed, and it was enough for us to recover, but it's not going to sustain us moving forward. Districts will have to figure that out on their own.

RELATED: Schools share strategies for managing the coming funding cliff.

EDTECH: Are there any lessons from the COVID-19 era that you’ll carry with you into the future?

Bourgeois: We’ve learned a lot about what high-quality remote and hybrid instruction looks like, and we’re continuing that. This year, we had four teachers help us think about how we might keep virtual and hybrid learning going in certain high school classes that aren’t available in every school across our district. That initiative has done really well, and we’re tripling the number of those classes next year.

Radcliffe: We’re continuing to use virtual meetings. Before, parents sometimes had to miss half a day of work to come to a one-hour meeting, but now we’re pretty flexible about meeting on video. Similarly, if a student is sick, he or she can now keep up with schoolwork through our learning management system

Manahan: We’ve learned that some students thrive in a virtual environment. And we’ve also learned that teachers and students — and the entire educational system — are resilient. Nothing about this has been easy, but we’re back. We’re learning together, and we’re continuing forward. 


The percentage of ESSER III funding that school districts nationwide plan to use for technology

Source: Burbio, “Burbio School Tracker: The Class of 2034,” Jan. 17, 2023


Illustration by Brian Stauffer, Getty Images/Izabela Habur (students); Fonikum (icons)

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