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Dee De La Paz September 21, 2021

Applying ESSER Funds to Accelerate Student Growth

Dee De La Paz

Manager of National Grants and Proposals at BetterLesson

It’s clear that K-12 education will feel the effects of COVID-19 for a long time. Children across the country are hurting as they grapple with disruption, fear, and constant change, the likes of which they’ve not known until this point. Family members got sick, schools closed, activities and play came to a standstill. Suddenly, children were expected to sit in front of the computer and focus for hours at a time, going with the flow as we established virtual learning systems. It’s hard to think these events wouldn’t have an impact.

According to an analysis completed by McKinsey & Company, the impact of COVID-19 on student learning and, on average, has left students five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Title I districts and schools that serve minority and low-income students predominantly saw greater loss, setting many Black and Latino students back six months or more. The pandemic not only affected academics; students’ social-emotional well-being also took a severe downturn.

Hybrid learning is not (equal) for everyone

In March 2020, as schools closed across the nation, districts scrambled to provide some type of remote learning for their students. As quickly as we moved to full online learning, we then introduced hybrid, or in-school and remote, learning. The experience was not consistent for students and the choice was not an easy one for parents. While remote and hybrid learning enabled schools to provide instruction to students at home, the experience and the solution was not equitable for many students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed an even brighter light on the inequities that plague K-12 education. Underserved student populations had difficulties with remote learning and most ended up not being able to connect at all, creating a great amount of lost learning time as well as not having a proper space, place, or the mental fortitude to get online to learn.

The impact of trauma and social-emotional skill loss

The last 18-months not only impacted academics but also induced trauma and loss of social-emotional skills. From losing family members to lost wages, jobs, and sources of income, meals, and “safe” places at school, the stress and trauma many children endured and continue to survive are significant. This, coupled with social isolation from closed schools and social distancing measures, loss of playgrounds, and seeing friends and family, has created a mental health crisis for many.

According to McKinsey, approximately 80% of the parents surveyed stated they were concerned about their child’s social and emotional health since the beginning of the pandemic. The loss in social and emotional well-being will impact many children’s lives and play a heavy role in academic success.

The good news is, the ARP ESSER fund specifically funds the academic and social-emotional needs of all students, especially our most vulnerable populations.

Federal funding to accelerate student growth

Never before have we had access to this level of federal funding designated to improve outcomes for students, teachers, and leaders.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) went into effect on March 27, 2020 establishing the Education Stabilization Fund (ESF) and allocating $30.75 billion to the U.S. Department of Education.

The ESF is composed of three primary emergency relief funds:

  1. a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund
  2. an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund
  3. a Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund

The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA Act), signed into law in December 2020 provided an additional $81.9B to the ESF.

In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP Act), added $122B for the ARP ESSER fund resulting in a total of $125.4 billion in funding for K-12 education.

Did you know ESSER can be used the same as ESEA?

ESSER Funds are awarded to State Education Agencies (SEAs) in the same proportion as each State received funds under Part A of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA). Funds are provided to SEAs and Local Education Agencies (LEA) to help safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools while addressing the impact of Covid-19 on student learning. (US Department of Education)

LEAs will receive nearly $110 billion through one single program and they can decide where funds will be spent. These funds can be used on any educational expense allowed under the ESSER Act, the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

This means ESSER funds can be used for the same allowable professional development and training activities for which ESEA funds can be used, including travel to conferences and professional development.

There are, however, some requirements in place directing how the funds should be used. SEAs must use 5% of the funds to address learning loss, 1% for afterschool activities, and 1% for summer learning. Of the funding available to districts or LEAs, 20% must address learning loss.

Two-thirds of funds are available to the SEAs now. To get the remaining funds, states are required to submit their ESSER implementation plans. You can track which states have already submitted and which ESSER funds have been approved at the US Department of Education.

How professional development accelerates learning

Districts and states need to acknowledge in their ESSER ARP plan that they are addressing lost instructional time and social-emotional needs that have grown due to the pandemic. These plans encompass instructional strategies, accelerating learning, educator professional development, extended learning time that all emphasize meeting the needs of high-need student populations. (English learners, low-income, minority students, students experiencing homelessness, and special education students) .

Professional learning courses provided by BetterLesson can give districts and schools the tools and resources they need to meet their ESSER plan outcomes and goals. Utilizing a student-centered approach that prioritizes grade-level content with differentiated supports, teachers can provide learning experiences that are equitable, rigorous, and sustainable creating success for all students.


We found these resources helpful for understanding how the funds can be used and the status of ESSER plans by state:

To see what professional learning courses align with closing student learning gaps, accelerating growth, and regaining social-emotional skills, download our ESSER funding guide to PD.

We’re here if you have questions. Our Partnership team can help you discover the best path to meet your school’s student growth goals this school year.

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