What are Pennsylvania schools doing with ESSER III funds?

(TNS) – Finding the best fit for ESSER III funds is a balancing act unique to each Midstate school system.

Short for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, ESSER is the term used by school administrators for each round of federal grants for COVID-19 relief funding provided over the past two years. Each of the three cycles represents a different stage of COVID-19 response and recovery.

The ESSER I funds come from a $13.2 billion appropriation under the $2 trillion stimulus bill enacted in spring 2020 by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Known as CARES, the purpose of this legislation was to mitigate the economic downturn due to shutdowns caused by the global pandemic.


Local school districts have used ESSER I funds primarily to purchase distance learning technology and cleaning supplies to ramp up sanitation efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

This was followed in December 2020 by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act which allocated $53.4 billion in ESSER II funds to school systems nationwide. The goal of this round was to help schools meet the challenge of a hybrid model that alternated in-person classroom instruction with distance learning.

Finally, on March 11, 2021, the federal government signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act which provided Pennsylvania with $4.5 billion in direct emergency funding to public and charter schools to support the long-term work of economic recovery. This became ESSER III – the newest series of relief funds.

As with previous cycles, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has posted guidelines on its website specifying possible uses of ESSER III funds. Workshops and seminars have also been held by groups such as the Capital Area Intermediate Unit and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

Not only did it involve more money, ESSER III had a broader scope than ESSER I and ESSER II. This added complexity to the planning process.

CARLISLE SCHOOLS

“It had to be a well-thought-out process,” said Jenna Kinsler, business manager for the Carlisle Area School District. “It wasn’t something that could be rushed.”

Months of preparation by a team of administrators went into the application the district submitted in March to the Department of Education.

“It was very detailed, very in-depth,” Kinsler said. “We had to give a precise plan on how we are going to manage such a mass of money in a short time.”

For Carlisle, the challenge involved using $6.8 million in federal grants by September 2024. Many questions had to be answered.

“How are we going to address learning loss?” said Kinsler. “What salaries will be included? What account codes? »

The thought process involved regular meetings with central office and building-level administrators to determine the academic and facility needs of the district.

One plan that has emerged is to use ESSER III funds to offset the one-time costs of such facility upgrades like replacing chillers and revamping HVAC systems. That way, the district can preserve its capital reserve fund for other projects, Kinsler said.

Districts are required to set aside a portion of ESSER III funds for learning loss, so staff can be hired to provide additional support to students.

“But that’s where districts have to be careful about the long-term impact on finances,” Kinsler said. “They need to plan it so that the general fund can absorb salary expenses after the grant ends.”

MIDDLETON SOUTH SCHOOLS

The South Middleton School District has a different view of how it will leverage ESSER III funds to pay for high-priority construction projects.

Rather than relying on a bond issue that would increase long-term debt, South Middleton wants to phase out its construction projects over a few years using money from ESSER III to pay the salaries and benefits of the interventionists in math and english as one. Second language teachers.

The idea is to free up money in the general fund budget to increase what is transferred to the capital reserve account each year. In recent years, South Middleton has attempted to bolster its capital reserve through an annual cash transfer.

“Under normal circumstances, school districts would not want to use funds like ESSER for recurring costs,” Superintendent James Estep said. “But we have a game plan on how to bring those positions back into the general fund over time.

“That’s what we need to do for public education,” Estep said, referring to how districts often struggle to balance revenue with spending. “The pie tends not to get bigger — at least by any substance — but the things we’re mandated to do do get bigger,” he said. “All you’re doing is rearranging the thickness of the pie slices.”

Like Carlisle, the first step in South Middleton’s thought process was to take a hard look at the ESSER III guidelines, recalled Tina Darchicourt, director of business and operations. “We were trying to find a way to pay for the roof of Yellow Breeches Middle School.”

While some construction projects are eligible for ESSER III funding, the roof restoration was such a gray area that it made more sense for the district to use the relief money to pay for something that clearly falls within the guidelines, a said Darchicourt. “It’s about taking the money out of one bucket and putting it in a different bucket for two years. We have to put it back in the first bucket once the ESSER money is gone.”

This strategy grew out of meetings within the leadership team that included input from Kevin O’Donnell, the new Assistant Superintendent.

“We discussed our main needs,” Estep said. “We also discussed that our existing budget was not in great shape. You are allowed to use your ESSER funds to maintain existing positions. That is why you are allowed to bump.”

CUMBERLAND VALLEY SCHOOLS

At the Cumberland Valley School District, ESSER spending has focused on one-time purchases as much as possible, Superintendent David Christopher said. “You want to use the funds in a way that they don’t have a budget impact. You have to be very careful not to invest ESSER funds in staff or ongoing programs, because then you have to determine the funding when the money goes.”

At first, there was a misunderstanding within the district that the ESSER funds are a massive injection of cash that could drive systematic change, Christopher said. In reality, even the ESSER III allocation for Cumberland Valley is relatively small compared to the overall size of the district’s annual budget.

On a positive note, the ESSER funds have given district administrators greater flexibility in constructing the past two general fund budgets as well as the current fiscal plan for 2022-23, Christopher said. ESSER funds were a game-changer in many other ways, he said.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Cumberland Valley did not have an individual system in place where each student, depending on grade, had access to an iPad or laptop as a learning aid. School closures in the spring of 2020 forced the district to shift to distance learning while ESSER funds provided the “lift” Cumberland Valley needed to implement a district-wide one-to-one system which is now part of the annual budget cycle, Christopher said.

“We also plan to spend a good portion of the ESSER funds on a reading program in our elementary schools,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious after COVID that we need to improve general reading instruction. The ESSER funds are one way to do that. It provides integrated opportunities for children through remediation.”

To develop the program, the district assembled a team of teachers, administrators, school board members and community volunteers, Christopher said. “They were trying to identify how we were going to move forward and support children in reading.”

The result was a multi-year process that included pilot projects and the use of ESSER funds to help with research and development. The Cumberland Valley School Board approved the reading program in February and the first teacher training session took place in March.

With a focus on the science of reading, the new program will use brain research into how children process sound to understand printed words, Christopher said.

GREAT SPRING SCHOOLS

The Big Spring School District used part of its ESSER III stipend to transform its summer school program into a summer camp with extended hours, enhanced academics, and increased opportunities for students to interact and socialize. said Superintendent Kevin Roberts. First offered last summer, the program will be offered again this year and in 2023.

A key part of the upgrade was Big Spring’s ability to provide district students with bus transportation to camp, Roberts said. This has dramatically increased the level of participation by providing better access for families in the 197 square mile rural district serving much of West Cumberland County, he said.

The old summer school programs weren’t as well attended due to transportation issues, Roberts said. The idea of ​​the summer camp is to provide students impacted by learning loss from COVID the opportunity to refresh and remediate.

Big Spring also plans to use ESSER III funds to offset increased costs for substitute teachers brought in to cover teachers absent due to COVID-19 or because they had to quarantine after contact tracing, Roberts said.

©2022 The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pennsylvania). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Norma A. Roth