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How to Use ESSER Funding to Support College and Career Readiness

School districts can use ESSER funding to upgrade CTE programming and create equitable CCR for students and address learning loss.

Theresa Rex
Theresa Rex

Jul 20, 2021

The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted every area of our lives in profound and lasting ways. For our schools — where so many aspects of everyday life overlap — that impact has been felt especially acutely. We likely won't know the total reach of that impact for years to come, but we already see the broad strokes. Learning loss gets much of the spotlight, but there's more to focus on: re-engaging students, keeping them on track to graduate, and mitigating the social, mental, and the emotional fallout of quarantine require attention as well.
As we head into the 2021-22 school year, two things are clear: school districts will have a lot to grapple with, and they're going to need help. That's where the Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief (ESSER) Fund comes in.
  1. What School Districts Need to Know About the ESSER Fund
  2. How Are ESSER Funds Distributed?
  3. Why Use ESSER to Support College and Career Readiness?
  4. How to Use ESSER to Support College and Career Readiness for Students
  5. What's the Timeline for ESSER Spending?

What School Districts Need to Know About the ESSER Fund

ESSER was originally created as part of the the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March of 2020 to the tune of $13.5B.In December of 2020, it was further funded in the Coronavirus Response & Relief Appropriation Act (CRRSA) with $54.3B and granted an additional $123B via the American Rescue Plan (ARP) with $123B in March 2021.

These three funding rounds are collectively referred to as ESSER I, II, and III. The combined $190B they represent can be used to fund a wide variety of action items on school districts' agendas, provided it falls under the extensive umbrella of: "preventing, preparing for, and responding to Covid-19" and fits into one of the 15 eligible usage categories put forth by the federal government.

How Are ESSER Funds Distributed?

 The money local education agencies (LEAs) receive will come through their respective state education agencies (SEAs) using the same formula for disbursing Title I-A funds.
To put the amount of money ESSER represents in perspective, when school districts apply through their SEA for their share of the funds, they'll have about 8x the usual amount of Title I funds at their disposal. If you're curious to see what your district could receive, this ESSER estimator broken down by school district is a great place to start.
That said, schools within each district do not need to be Title I schools. If a district usually receives Title I funds for any school within its boundaries, they're eligible for ESSER. That doesn't mean the funds have to be used in the same way,and the same restrictions don't bind them.
ESSER III fund information side by side with ESSER I and ESSER II

Why Use ESSER to Support College and Career Readiness?

College and career readiness falls under the many allowable uses of ESSER funds, and that's excellent news, considering the ways that the Coronavirus pandemic eroded the postsecondary plans of so many students already. For instance, there's been a significant drop - called "unprecedented" by The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) - in first-year enrollments in two- and four-year institutions .
The numbers back that assertion up, and they're alarming:
  • There was a 21.7% decline in fall enrollments overall for the class of 2020

  • Enrollment in a postsecondary institute dropped by 16.4% for students who graduated from low-poverty high schools

  • Their counterparts in high-poverty schools were twice as likely not to enroll — that number declined by 32.6% compared to the previous year.

Unfortunately, this year's preliminary data doesn't look particularly promising, either:

  • 2021 saw even fewer FAFSA completions than 2020 did, for a combined 210,000 missing applications in all, likely impacting low-income, first-generation, community college, and underrepresented student populations

  • Community colleges are continuing to bear the brunt of the decline, with 476,000 fewer enrollments already. A drop of 9.6% as compared to the .6% decline in enrollment in public four-year universities, according to preliminary data from NSC

Career and technical education (CTE) for which hands-on, real-world experience is a core component, took an especially hard hit in the long quarantine months as educators and CTE coordinators worked to keep students engaged from afar.

Read More: Preparing Students for the Modern Workforce Isn't Just About Sending Them to College

At the same time, getting students ready to take their next steps in life by preparing them for the workforce by way of a diploma, degree, or industry credential has never been more urgent. In an economy where the workforce and labor market are evolving as we watch, making up lost ground and keeping students on track is critical.
It's crucial for ensuring positive outcomes for the generation of students who have had to learn how to navigate the turmoil of the past 16 months and will have to adapt just as rapidly as schools reopen in the fall. It's also critical for the long-term health of an already battered economy. Fortunately, school districts will have a lot of latitude when applying for ESSER funds that support postsecondary preparedness and CTE — and they're going to need it.

How to Use ESSER to Support College and Career Readiness for Students

But where will they start? The broad scope of ESSER eligibility is a boon. Still, it can also lead to decision paralysis for the superintendents, coordinators, and Title I advisors who decide where it will go. As stakeholders begin to make those decisions and disbursements, there are three ways to ensure that both will positively impact students.

1. Focus on equity in ESSER-funded college and career readiness initiatives

Every round of ESSER funding highlighted the necessity of channeling some portion of resources into serving low-income and underrepresented student groups, but ESSER III codified it.

Overwhelmingly, the data show that low-income students, students of color, and special student populations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Language in the third funding round provides a clear directive to SEAs and LEAs that they should work to allay that disproportionate impact.

 Districts must reserve at least 20% of ARP ESSER funds "to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions and ensure that those interventions respond to students' social, emotional, and academic needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups."
When applying for subgrants, stakeholders should keep this directive at the forefront, and use the opportunity to invest in initiatives that can measure student outcomes with rich data, deliver those evidence-based interventions, and track student outcomes.
Equity in college and career readiness programming can look like a lot, but some key focus areas include:
  • Access to financial aid and literacy resources and assistance in taking advantage of those resources, including ample information about federal and state aid for college intending students and information about scholarships for underrepresented students and how to create a competitive application for those scholarships.

  • Expanded access to exploratory activities and tools, including research-backed skills and career interest assessments for students

  • Expanded access to robust college and career readiness curriculum that aligns with student interests and goals

  • Configurable, trackable readiness indicators that enable data-backed interventions that prevent students from at-risk groups from falling through the cracks, even in blended learning environments

2. Seize this opportunity to build CTE stronger than ever before

 As with most legislation, ESSER is all encompassing. This means that any activity previously enacted under similar legislation - including ESEA, IDEA, McKinney Vento, and Perkins V - is also allowable.
What's more, one source of funding will not preclude another. So for CTE coordinators looking to build, improve, repair, or scale CTE for students, funding under Perkins can be "braided into" or combined with the ESSER award for those same authorized activities, like:
  • Equipment for approved CTE instruction, instructional material, supplies, career counseling and guidance, and curriculum development

  • Experiential learning in the form of onsite instruction or off-campus excursions within the community or with industry partners and employers

  • Technical skills assessments fees for students and instructors and memberships and subscriptions in business, professional, technical groups or associations for roles within the CTE ecosystem

  • Outreach and marketing collateral for CTE programming and industry partner engagement and recruitment efforts

The passage of Perkins in 2006 opened up resources for school districts to create and improve CTE programs that more closely reflect the needs of the modern workforce. The ESSER fund provides an unprecedented opportunity to introduce more students to quality CTE instruction and build professional networks in high-paying fields that capture student interest. Let's not let it slip past.

3. Choose student-focused technology that delivers more than one solution

 Technology made the continuity of services possible for so many students in the past school year and a half. Bringing the benefits and lessons learned while implementing it into the next few years will be made much easier with ESSER.
LEAs have the green light to "[Purchase] educational technology (hardware, software, and connectivity) for students that aids in regular/substantive educational interaction between students and instructors, including low-income students and students with disabilities, which may include assistive technology or adaptive equipment."
For districts that plan to purchase college and career readiness platforms or software, the technology they choose should tick more than one box to make the most use of ESSER money: 
  • It should be intuitive and engaging: For students to benefit from a new technology, they have to be able to use it without hiking up a steep learning curve. Technology that's intuitive, engaging, and operational as close to out-of-the-box as possible will allow schools to accelerate college and career learning to mitigate learning loss.

  • It needs to be accessible from anywhere: There's plenty of cause for cautious optimism. Still, it's important to retain the pandemic's lessons and not assume that students will always be using the technology they need in a classroom setting. They need to also access curriculum, information, and activities from home without purchasing additional devices.

  • It needs to be a complete solution: A solution is not sustainable if it has to be stitched together with other technology, maintained on separate platforms, or buggy and unreliable. Instead, look for software, platforms, and tech that can multitask without sacrificing functionality.

  • It should extend time as a resource, not consume it: There is a lot to do in the months to come. Lengthy implementation and training periods will eat into that valuable time, and so will any technology that requires educators and counselors to pull a second shift on data entry. College and career readiness technology that saves time, especially where reporting is concerned, will be invaluable when it comes time to report on the efficacy of ESSER resource spending.

What's the Timeline for ESSER Spending?

ESSER funds allow for a pre-award, in that they can be used for expenses going as far back as March 13, 2020. Then each round has its own associated deadline for awarding and obligating the funds. Let's take a look at the difference between them:

  • Awarded - This refers to the step in the process where ESSER fund money is transferred from the SEA to the LEAs and subgrantees it oversees.

  • Obligated - To meet the deadline for obligation, LEAs and subgrantees must commit to spending the money they're awarded for the purpose it was awarded for. In other words, the money received must be budgeted to an outlined purpose. It is not the date by which all of the money must be spent. It is a legally binding agreement.

For each round, the funds must be awarded within one year of their receipt. Then it's up to SEAs and LEAs to obligate the funds by September 30 of 2022, 2023, and 2024. ESSER III came with a few additional deadlines to keep track of. LEAs had to seek public comment and feedback on their plans for safely reopening within 30 days of receiving the ESSER III funds, which were released on March 24, 2021. Within 90 days of receiving ESSER III, LEAs had to do the same in respect to their plans for addressing learning loss and supporting students' academic, social, emotional, and mental health.

The changes the Coronavirus pandemic ushered in have been far-reaching, and navigating through them continues to present the education community to both challenges and opportunities. As school districts rise to the newest challenge, they'll work to reopen safely and help their students pick up the pieces of an interrupted education. Meanwhile, the resources available within the ESSER Fund hold a brand new opportunity to create a more equitable learning experience as they do.

Interested in learning how SchooLinks helps create equitable college and career readiness experiences that lead to positive post-secondary outcomes on our modern, intuitive platform? We've helped school districts all over the country provide continuous, rigorous, and equitable preparedness programming with a whole-student focus from the very beginning of the pandemic. Get in touch!

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Theresa Rex

Theresa Rex is the content marketing manager at SchooLinks. She is a first-generation college grad and an absolute nerd for equity and em dashes.