Late 2020 and early 2021 provided a series of attention-grabbing headlines from Washington, D.C., and no one suffering 2020 fatigue can be faulted for missing even substantive legislative details in the face of the unprecedented conflicts surrounding the White House transition.

Still, amid the conflict, congressional representatives could come together late last year to pass a second COVID-19 relief act — the source of the $600 stimulus payments many taxpayers received toward the end of December. In addition to the stimulus payments, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (“Response and Relief Act”) has provisions for, among other groups, primary and secondary schools.

The change in power dynamics in the White House and U.S. Congress may likely result in additional legislative action related to COVID-19 recovery, some legislation being debated at the time of writing.

So, let’s take a step back to look at what the December 2020 Response and Relief Act means and how it will affect public schools and their employees.

 

Reenergizing the Education Stabilization Fund

The $900 billion Response and Relief Act included $82 billion for education, including higher and private education. The $82 billion would keep the Education Stabilization Fund available through September 22, 2022.

The act allocates $54.3 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Like the CARES Act that education provisions, funds will be distributed for states to disburse based on their proportional share of ESEA Title 1-A funds. While states can retain 10 percent of the funds for emergency needs, at least 90 percent must be allocated to local education agencies.

Schools can use the relief to address learning loss, improve school facilities and infrastructure to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, and purchase education technology.

 

Enhancing Educational Technology

Because schools’ use of funds is determined by the state, local education leaders must continue to work with their state agencies to shape the immediate and longer-term use of funds.

In Using CARES Act Provisions to Strengthen School Board and Administrative Operations, author Diana Freeman covered key questions school leaders can ask, including questions on using funds for education technology. Because virtual communications have become even more critical during the pandemic year, some districts have applied these funds to board portal technology such as Diligent’s BoardDocs, facilitating communication between local leaders and citizens.

 

Combating Learning Loss

Meanwhile, definitive data on how COVID-19 is affecting public schools and their students, especially in measurable learning loss, is still coming together.

The Brookings Institute, while acknowledging that complete data is not yet available, published some initial findings in late 2020. The report concluded, “In some ways, our findings show an optimistic picture: In reading, on average, the achievement percentiles of students in fall 2020 were similar to those of same-grade students in fall 2019, and in almost all grades, most students made some learning gains since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“In math, however, the results tell a less rosy story: Student achievement was lower than the pre-COVID-19 performance by same-grade students in fall 2019, and students showed lower growth in math across grades 3 to 8 relative to peers in the previous, more typical year. Schools will need clear local data to understand if these national trends are reflective of their students.”

Because school closures and absenteeism related to the pandemic continue, the full picture of the effect on public school students is still being determined.

 

Spending, Payroll Tax Repayment Deadlines Extended

To-do list relief was part of the package. The original deadline for state and local governments to spend funds specified by the original CARES Act was extended by a year to December 31, 2021, while the deadlines for workers to pay back payroll tax deferrals were extended to December 31 as well.

The act also provides $120 billion in unemployment insurance and expands various unemployment benefits.

 

What’s Next in COVID Relief for Public Schools

At this writing, the new administration under President Joe Biden is working on additional relief plans for schools, part of an effort titled the “American Rescue Plan.” This $1.9 trillion plan would include $130B in funding for schools as well as $5B in discretionary funds for governors to benefit the “hardest hit” K-12 and other educational programs.

One focus of the education dollars for the plan would be to get schools reopened in the earlier part of 2021. It would also provide $50 billion in COVID-19 testing for schools, long-term care facilities, and prisons.

(Discover how Diligent has covered COVID-19 news for our customers.)

Semiserious hopes that 2021 would provide a fresh start from the challenges of 2020 did not bear out. Still, two waves of relief for schools (and potentially a third) give educators options in how they continue to provide services for their schools and best serve their student populations. Diligent will continue to monitor the effects of COVID-19 and relief that affect our customers; we are committed to helping education leaders use technology solutions to support their student populations both during and after the pandemic.