School districts are planning for the upcoming academic year under a cloud of uncertainty, especially around funding. Due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, states are facing steep declines in income and tax revenue, leaving district leaders worried about budget cuts in the new fiscal year.
Reopening schools during a pandemic will also require new investments in technology — from thermal body temperature scanners to sanitation tools — and additional staff hiring. An average-sized district of 3,659 students will have to spend nearly $1.8 million to comply with recommended health and safety guidelines in 2020-2021, according to estimates from the School Superintendents Association (AASA) and the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO).
Many districts are also expected to spend more for technology upgrades and service if they continue with remote learning or adopt a hybrid approach. Laptops, mobile hotspots and software applications have all become necessary tools in this new normal, but some students — and even teachers — still don’t have access to them.
“Normally, in a recession, we would say technology will be cut first,” Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, tells NBC News. “Most people are saying that won’t be true this time.”
So, what options do districts have to best meet the needs of their students and employees during this trying time?
DISCOVER: Take a look at IT leaders’ top budget concerns.
What You Need to Know About the CARES Act
At the end of March, the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law. It includes a $30.75 billion emergency relief fund divided between K–12 and higher education schools.
That funding is broken down into specific grants, including the $13.2 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, $3 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund and $307.5 million Education Stabilization Fund.
The ESSER fund is distributed to states based on the percentage of federal Title I funds they receive. State education agencies must then allocate 90 percent of those funds to local education agencies and can keep up to 10 percent for targeted use. They also have up to 12 months to distribute all funds and are responsible for determining their distribution process and timeline.
Local education agencies can then use the funds for expenses incurred from March 13, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2022. One key thing to note is that the U.S. Department of Education really wanted to push equitable access to distance learning, which is why purchases for educational technologies such as mobile devices, Wi-Fi hotspots and external wireless access points, as well as professional development and support for teachers, are included in the 12 defined areas where ESSER funds can be used.
Meanwhile, the GEER fund is primarily for supporting salaries and operational expenses or emergency educational services for Pre-K, K–12 and higher education institutions most significantly impacted by the coronavirus. And last, the Education Stabilization Fund includes a competitive state level grant aimed at developing innovative ways for students to access K–12 education remotely, which includes funding for statewide virtual learning and course access programs.
In addition to those funds, the Department of Education also lifted the 15 percent cap on Title IV funds for computer hardware, giving districts increased flexibility to purchase computer hardware using those funds. Plus, Title I funds can now be used for non-Title I schools, and waivers allow districts to transfer Title I and II funds to Title IV.
MORE ON EDTECH: Learn about the IT investment priorities shaping today’s school districts.
Other School Funding Opportunities to Keep an Eye On
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, a $3 trillion stimulus bill that includes critical funding to improve broadband access and close the homework gap.
If approved, the package would provide $1.5 billion through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program for connectivity solutions, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, connected devices and advanced telecommunications at schools and libraries. It also includes $4 billion in FCC funding to provide monthly discounts for low-income broadband users.
Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act, which includes $175 billion for K–12 schools to safely provide in-person, remote or hybrid learning to students and expand the E-rate program. Other proposed legislation to expand broadband services and improve infrastructure include the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act and the Emergency Educational Connections Act.
Service providers began partnering with schools to provide the necessary tools to bridge the digital divide after the FCC waived the E-rate program’s gift rules through Sept. 30, 2020. If your school or district is looking for other funding opportunities, check out GetEdFunding, CDW•G’s free, searchable database of grants and awards.
This article is part of the “ConnectIT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology” series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ConnectIT hashtag.