School districts can now apply for the second installment of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, a federal relief package to cushion coronavirus costs in public schools. The announcement came June 3, following not only the end of school for most Texas districts but also a long downward trend of coronavirus infection rates.
This installment, ESSER II, is the last to reach local districts despite being the second of three ESSER packages approved by Congress. The third package already reached school districts in April.
ESSER II provides $5.5 billion dollars for schools across the state. Allocations for each school district can be found here.
The TEA emphasized that the money should go toward helping students catch up after a sluggish year.
“School systems should use these new funds for allowable activities to respond to the pandemic and to address student learning loss as a result of COVID-19,” the TEA stated.
“While keeping in mind the purpose and requirements under ESSER II related to accelerating student learning, TEA strongly encourages school systems to plan for how to use these one-time federal funds expeditiously over the entire covered period. ESSER II funds must be spent by September 30, 2023.”
The first two federal relief packages came during the Trump administration. The third came under the Biden administration and dwarfed its two forerunners.
ESSER I was part of the first federal COVID-19 relief package: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of March 2020, which included $1.2 billion for Texas schools. ESSER II was part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, passed in December 2020. ESSER III was part of the American Rescue Plan Act of March 2021 and included $11.2 billion for Texas schools, almost double the combined total of both previous packages.
Schools still haven’t finished spending the first package. According to federal data, school districts have spent about three-quarters of ESSER I.
School districts must reserve at least one-fifth of their funds to address learning loss. The remaining funds can be used to address the “unique needs” of certain students — impoverished, disabled, homeless, or minority children — and cover the costs of COVID-19 response. For example, the text of the American Rescue Plan specifies that funds should be used for cleaning supplies and “training and professional development for staff… on sanitation and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases,” among other needs.
The money can also go toward building repairs and improvements. Schools typically cover these costs with local bonds.
Aside from these one-time grants, Texas schools draw their funding from two sources: local property taxes and state money. Both remained steady during the economic downturns of the pandemic.
On the local side, property taxes have stayed mostly level since the store closures and supply shocks that affected other industries had little impact on the values of homes.
On the state side, Texas officials have temporarily uncoupled funding from attendance to let schools avoid budget cuts that would normally be automatic. Typically, attendance determines how much funding schools receive from the state: more students means more money. This school year saw a 3 percent decline in overall enrollment, a historic drop that would have resulted in a consequent decline in funding if not for the state’s hold harmless policy.
The enrollment drop comes just a year after the state’s ample hike in education spending.
The TEA said that some federal money will supplant state funds and should supplant local funds as well.
“Please note that ESSER II formula funding levels are being examined in the calculation of the 2020-2021 hold harmless,” the TEA stated.
“If activity that is allowable under federal law is paid for by federal funds when that activity was previously paid for by local funds, then unspent local funds are freed up for the purpose of extending intervention support for students into future years.”
Especially compared to other arenas of public life, schools remained relatively safe during the pandemic. Early reporting showed low infection rates and deaths in schools both in Texas and across the country, a trend that persisted throughout the school year.
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