K-12 Schools Invest CARES Act Monies to Enable Virtual and Hybrid Learning on a Mass Scale

Before most of the nation’s K-12 schools closed their doors in March, sending students to learn from home while the COVID-19 pandemic raged, school leaders confronted a job that no one imagined when the school year began. They had to facilitate remote work for hundreds or thousands of professional staff and remote learning for exponentially larger numbers of students – none of whom were used to working outside of the traditional school environment.

Some districts were better prepared than others – particularly those that had already moved to a one-to-one learning model, with one device for each student. Communities well-served by broadband internet access were also better suited to make the transition to remote learning, experts said.

In Jefferson County, Ky., for example, school leaders for several years had prioritized moving to a one-to-one model, along with instructional software, curriculum, and teacher preparation, said CIO Kermit Belcher. “We had increased our security measures, and we’re working on our network infrastructure,” he added.

Then, in March, “We basically had two weeks to start a whole new education system and get technology into the hands of every single one of our families,” said Mark Hebert, communications manager for Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), which serves nearly 100,000 students. “We pulled it off as best we could. And now we’re now fully prepared [for] the fall.”

All districts were challenged by the swift change to remote learning (often called virtual learning) and the financial and logistical hurdles that came with it.

School leaders welcomed the billions of dollars in education aid brought by the nearly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), which was passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in March. The funding has enabled districts to invest in computing devices and internet access for students, online curricula and learning management systems, professional learning to help teachers instruct effectively online, IT and cybersecurity infrastructure to support remote learning, and protective measures such as personal protective equipment and cleaning.

The CARES Act provides several funding streams for K-12 schools:

  • The $13.3 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). State education agencies had until July 1 to apply for ESSER funding, which is distributed to states via an established Federal formula based upon numbers of students from low-income households. Within one year, states must allocate 90 percent of the funds to school districts according to the same formula. Of the remaining 10 percent, states may spend 1/2 of 1 percent on administrative costs and the rest on emergency coronavirus-response needs, either through grants or contracts;
  • The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), which provided $3 billion to the nation’s governors, which they are distributing at their discretion to “significantly impacted” K-12 school districts and higher education institutions. Funds must be awarded by governors within one year of receipt;
  • The Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant, a $180 million competitive program through which 11 states were awarded grants ranging from $7 million to $20 million in three areas: access to remote learning; statewide virtual learning and course access; and new models for remote education; and
  • $100 million in grants under the Department of Education’s Project SERV, available through Sept. 30, 2021. Project SERV grants are designed to help school districts and post-secondary institutions recover from violent or traumatic events that disrupt learning. The grants can support remote learning, counseling, and disinfecting schools.

In addition, some states are allocating Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) monies to education initiatives. The CRF is a $150 billion CARES grant program for states, territories, and local and tribal governments. Funds must be spent on pandemic response activities between March 1 and Dec. 30, 2020, that were not already budgeted. Funds were distributed by the U.S. Treasury to states and to municipalities with more than 500,000 residents, based upon population. States could distribute funds to municipalities with less than 500,000 residents, but were not required to do so.

The Dec. 30 deadline for using CRF funds – as well as other short-term timeframes set by some states for grant programs using the 10 percent ESSER allocation – are especially challenging, noted Tara Nattrass, a K-12 education strategist for Dell Technologies and a former assistant superintendent. “Schools are used to having at least 15 months, and up to 27 months, for drawdown of Federal dollars, and they spend one-time funding differently than recurring funds,” she said. “They may want to invest in broadband access and other services that require ongoing funds, so they may have to determine how to continue to purchase those services after the CARES monies are spent.”

Putting CARES Money to Work

Education leaders praise ESSER and GEER for their flexibility – essentially, monies can be spent on anything currently allowable under existing Federal education laws, if districts are able to link the purchase to COVID-19 relief needs. The two funds have a more generous timeframe for spending than the CRF, and many states are using existing tools and processes for managing Federal grants to schools, easing grant administration.

But, “if states haven’t allocated their ESSER funding by spring, those funds are going to go back into a pot and be reallocated again,” Nattrass said.

Because ESSER employed an established funding formula, districts understood approximately how much they stood to receive and were accounting for that in their budgets, said Elleka Yost, government affairs and communications manager for the Association of School Business Officers International (ASBO).

Yet “in June and July many districts still had not seen funds arrive, because of legal disputes,” Yost observed. Eight states, the District of Columbia, and four school districts sued after the Education Department sought to provide ESSER aid to private schools based on the total number of students, rather than the number of students from low-income families. In August, after a Washington state judge blocked the change from being implemented, funds started flowing, Yost said.

School business leaders didn’t wait for the CARES Act funds to trickle in, however. Right away, they started running various scenarios and developing options for consideration by superintendents and school boards, said David Lewis, ASBO executive director. “School district managers are used to dealing with uncertainties,” he noted.

Outside of the 90 percent ESSER allocation that went directly to school districts, states used remaining funds in various ways. Arizona reserved its 10 percent for schools that did not receive funds from the 90 percent allocation, said Ji Soo Song, senior policy and advocacy associate at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Ohio, on the other hand, set aside $50 million for a broadband connectivity grant, under which districts could apply for funds for devices and services that provide internet connectivity for students.

According to an analysis of 48 governors’ plans for GEER funds by the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to education policy, and FutureEd, an education-focused think tank, 36 set aside funds for expanding broadband to students without internet access; 34 devoted funds to laptops and other devices; and 35 designated funds for curriculum and teacher training to deliver remote learning. Most governors devoted money to both K-12 and higher education.

Schools that divided their CARES Act funds into multiple areas were particularly successful with the transition to remote learning on a mass scale, said Richard Culatta, ISTE CEO.

JCPS, the largest school district in Kentucky, received $5 million in GEER funds and $25.4 million in ESSER funds. With the money, the district invested $11.4 million in 30,000 Chromebooks and $2.8 million in 10,000 hotspots.

“We knew that our students would need devices to be able to be successful in a virtual learning environment, and we knew they would need internet access. We are not staffed or equipped to be internet service providers, but for our students to be successful, that’s something we had to do in the short term,” Belcher said. JCPS began school Aug. 25 with all-remote learning; the district plans to reexamine its decision every six weeks.

In Greensburg, La., rural St. Helena Parish School District received an ESSER formula grant of $524,000, the bulk of which supported technology purchases, teacher training, and a three-week summer program that acclimated students to the technology tools used for remote learning. The district refreshed its one-to-one devices with new Windows-based laptops for its 1,200 students and 2-in-1 laptops for teachers. It also refreshed the interactive whiteboards in two schools and invested in high-definition conference-room cameras for every classroom, as well as micro PCs to run the cameras.

St. Helena Parish also received $70,000 in GEER funds, which enabled the district to distribute 360 hotspots, equip 23 buses with Wi-Fi, and provide nine Wi-Fi devices at locations such as churches or stores in low-connectivity areas. E-rate funding enabled the district to upgrade its network infrastructure.

The district began school Aug. 3 with all-virtual learning. Now, the district has moved to a hybrid model, with some students opting to continue learning from home, while others are in the classroom.

The cameras enable teachers to instruct synchronously with students learning from home and in the classroom, and the 2-in-1 laptops enable them to interact with the whiteboard from anywhere in the classroom. The technology “really changed the game in terms of what teachers are able to do,” said Sonia Fields Gutierrez, assistant superintendent at St. Helena Parish. “They were feeling really limited with what they could do, and now the possibilities are really endless.”

Moving From Emergency Response to Long-Term Success

School districts’ new expenditures – coupled with funding shortfalls due to declining tax revenues – mean the CARES Act funds aren’t enough to meet districts’ needs. The typical school district budget for the current year was cut 10 to 15 percent; some may be cut up to 25 percent, Lewis said.

“Everybody’s scrambling to fill that hole in their wallets. Every school district is in the same boat,” Belcher said.

As a result, one of the biggest jobs for districts today is determining where to spend their limited dollars – and how to ensure those investments last. 

“Districts are weighing competing priorities and determining which ones to focus on with the CARES funds, because the money isn’t enough to close the funding gaps they may see this year and into next year,” said Eminence Griffin, senior manager for government affairs at Dell. “A lot of districts are still in emergency mode, making decisions about what they need now, next week, and next month. They also need to make sure that those decisions support where they want to be a year from now.”

Districts’ technology needs fell into three main areas, Nattrass noted:

  • Access to devices;
  • Access to broadband connectivity; and
  • Access to educational content.

To prioritize their spending, districts need to evaluate their current situation in each area. A district with a one-to-one implementation might need to focus on broadband access rather than devices, and a district in which most families have broadband might need to put its curriculum or other resources online or invest in a learning management system.

Cybersecurity and network infrastructure are also top of mind, Nattrass noted. “Districts are evaluating what they are doing; some are in a really good place and others have realized they need to bolster their security measures or their network capabilities to ensure the network is resilient and information is protected.”

To help close funding gaps, industry associations ISTE and ASBO encourage districts to take advantage of additional funding sources. Many districts rely on funds allocated under Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act to pay for professional development in the effective use of technology, Song said.

Grant funding enabled St. Helena Parish to invest in technology and online curriculum well before the pandemic. “We’ve always been really aggressive in applying for competitive grants,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of other districts spent a lot of their ESSER money on curriculum. We were fortunate because we already had that.”

A short-term solution to internet access for students from low-income families is low-cost internet access via providers participating with EveryoneOn, Culatta noted. ISTE and many other education industry groups are urging Congress to provide at least $4 billion in funding to expand the Universal Service Schools and Libraries Program, commonly known as E-rate, to help connect millions of students to the internet.

Because of E-rate, about 98 percent of U.S. schools have broadband internet, Culatta said. “That’s huge – but it stops at the school,” he said. Industry groups say the funds are needed not just for full-time remote learning, but to help close the “homework gap” during normal times for students who don’t have regular internet access at home.

Because the E-rate program only applies to school and library facilities, schools are finding creative ways to provide internet access to students under the current rules, Griffin said. “That’s why schools are putting hot spots on buses in school parking lots,” she observed. “Additional flexibilities are needed to get internet directly into students’ homes. We have students who can’t get their basic education needs met because they don’t have access to a hotspot. The pandemic has brought the inequities in our system into sharp relief.”

Belcher agreed. “The biggest challenge is closing the digital divide,” he said. “We want to work with the community on a sustainable and affordable [access] model for our families.”

Districts should also reassess their spending on a broad scale, Culatta advised. “We’re going to need to think about things that schools pay for that may not be worth the investment,” he said. “For example, we spend billions of dollars a year on textbooks, which are incredibly expensive and outdated the second they are printed.”

The alternative is open licensed educational content – often created by universities and nonprofit organizations and often online – that schools can use without paying royalty fees. “That’s billions of dollars that schools could redirect toward purchasing connectivity, purchasing devices, and training teachers to be effective online,” Culatta said.

Despite their financial and logistical challenges, school leaders say the sweeping changes brought about by pandemic response will have long-lasting benefits for the nation’s schools.

“In my career, technology has always been viewed as separate from instruction,” Belcher noted. “Really, they should be meshed together. Technology is a tool to enhance instruction, and if you have a strong instructional plan, it can help you get where you want to go faster. When we come back, we will be better than we ever were before.”

Recommendations From the Trenches

K-12 leaders offer sage advice for securing and using CARES Act funds for IT initiatives:

  • Establish a vision for effective learning. Determine what students need most, and make purchasing decisions accordingly, district and association leaders said. “Every district is different. Think of your kids first,” Belcher advised. “What do they need?”
  • Prioritize teacher professional development along with technology. “All the technology in the world is wasted if it is connected to a teacher who doesn’t know how to teach online,” Culatta said.
  • Purchase for the long term. Educational technology investments should last three to five years, Nattrass noted, and should take into account the IT infrastructure and cybersecurity needed to support them. “Students learning virtually need flexibility, choice in the learning process, and a blend of whole group, small group, and individual instruction,” she observed. “Ask ‘How can the funds used to support them now also help to transform school environments later?’”
  • Collaborate. Bring stakeholders together regularly – district staff, including IT, finance, and grants professionals; principals; and teachers – and consult with families. “Getting multiple perspectives really helps you pinpoint your needs,” Gutierrez said.
  • Know your regs. Become familiar with EDGAR regulations, the Department of Education’s administrative rules for using Department of Education grant dollars, as well as 2 CFR 200 – Title 2, Part 200 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Yost advised.
  • Document, document, document. Keep records of every purchase and timesheet to demonstrate how you used the funds in the best interest of students. These documents will support a district audit, which could come years after the fact, Yost noted. Documentation also helps protect districts against liability lawsuits related to cybersecurity and privacy concerns, as well as student and staff health, she said.
  • Advocate. Communicate challenges to elected leaders in state and Federal government; ask for help finding solutions. “School districts have never dealt with a global pandemic and a massive financial crisis at the same time. I don’t think this is a problem that any group can solve on their own,” Culatta noted. And “be way more vocal to the FCC about getting support for connectivity at home,” he recommended.