New CARES Act Funding Released to Improve Access to Education

Student working on computer with CARES funding logo

CARES Act ESSER Funding aims to help K-12 schools “rethink the way students access education.”

 

Federal funding through the Coronavirus Relief Fund intends to make learning more accessible to students with disabilities, at-risk populations, language needs, and other challenges.

 

Two pots of money are allocated for K-12 education—one will be distributed to governors to be spent as seen fit to meet the needs of students and schools. The other goes directly to districts (Local Education Agencies, LEAs) based on Title 1 proportions.

How much funding will be distributed?

The funding distributed to districts/LEAs through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) infuses $13.2 billion into K-12 education “to address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools across the Nation.”

 

By accepting this funding, states agree that they will 1) maintain their funding for education equal to their average support for the preceding three years (so the states can’t use this federal funding to make up for their own budget shortfalls), and 2) Any entity receiving these funds must follow regulations as well set by states and the legislation.

What will my district get?

See your state’s allocation here. “Fund awards to SEAs are in the same proportion as each State received funds under Part A of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, in fiscal year 2019.”

 

It’s difficult to paint a positive picture given so much struggle, but considering the inequities highlighted by eLearning, there is a responsibility to see that this funding is directed in the best way possible to see outcomes for students in need. Without advocating for students in need, the funding could get snapped up by someone else and their priorities.

 

Being in an eLearning mode for a good portion of the 2019-2020 school year, the lessons for education are clear:

 

  1. eLearning is no panacea for anyone—it’s tough on teachers, students, and families
  2. Economically disadvantaged students are doubly affected—from meal support to lacking access to the tools they need to learn—Chromebooks, internet, etc.
  3. Students with disabilities face incredible challenges learning more independently on screens without many of the supports they rely heavily on in school.
  4. English Language Learners (ELLs) face an English-driven interface without the additional supports they rely on to learn.

How will this funding impact students with disabilities, ELLs, and the poor/disadvantaged?

The funding is specifically targeted at closing these gaps illuminated by eLearning. For accessible learning advocates, here are the key points included in the usage requirements:

  1. Planning and coordination during long-term closures, including how to provide meals to eligible students, how to provide online learning technology to all students, how to provide guidance on meeting IDEA requirements, and how to ensure other educational services can continue to be provided consistent with federal, state, and local requirements. CARES Act Section 18003(d)(8).
  2. Special populations including “Activities that address unique needs of low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youths, including how outreach and service delivery will meet the needs of each population. CARES Act Section 18003(d)(4).
  3. Purchasing educational technology, which could include hardware, software, and connectivity, for students served by the LEA that aids in regular, substantive educational interaction between students and educators, including low-income students and students with disabilities. This could also include assistive technology or adaptive equipment. CARES Act Section 18003(d)(9).
  4. Planning and implementing summer learning and supplemental after school program activities, including providing classroom instruction or online learning during the summer months and addressing the needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and children in foster care. CARES Act Section 18003(d)(11).
  5. See the complete list here (starting on page 10).

This funding offers an opportunity to help advocate for students with disabilities and ELLs to help them get what they need.

 

States and school districts will likely start seeing funds by May or June 2020.

Left Image is a teacher smiling at a computer, right image is a young male student with headphones smiling at a computer

What should I do?

The secretary of education encourages creative thinking when planning to use these funds. “It’s important to think creatively about new delivery methods and focus on investing in the technology infrastructure and professional development and training that will help all students continue to learn through some form of remote learning.”

 

But one thing districts will have in common when allocating funds is to identify the most salient needs brought on by the COVID crisis. Since the funding is intended to address the needs of students with disabilities, English learners, and at-risk students, the district will likely look for solutions that positively impact these populations.

 

Technologies, software, and even assistive technology / adaptive equipment were specifically written into the funding guidance and are seen as a means to provide better access to the curriculum for these populations who have been disproportionately affected by school closures.

 

As an advocate for students, what actions will you take to bring about the needed changes that will give students access to the tools, materials, and resources that will help close accessibility and achievement gaps?

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