By David Sciarra, Jessica Levin and Wendy Lecker

In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress has provided $13.5 billion in emergency relief to help local school districts and states respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation’s public school students.

The decision by states to close their public education systems and serve students through “remote instruction” has exposed the well-documented “digital divide” across the country. State and local education officials are now scrambling to provide internet access, devices, online instructional materials and teacher assistance – not to mention nutrition and other essential services – to millions of students for what may be the remainder of the school year. These resource needs are acute for vulnerable student populations that depend on, and are legally entitled to, additional education resources and supports, especially students with disabilities, English language learners, low-income students and students who are homeless or in foster care.

A decade of state-by-state under-investment in public education means the nation’s school systems are entering the COVID-19 pandemic both seriously under-resourced and under-prepared to transition entire student populations to effective and equitable learning opportunities through remote, digital means.

CARES Act Emergency Relief Funds

The CARES Act includes a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to address educational needs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. About half of that sum is designated for higher education, $3 billion for a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, and the rest ($13.5 billion) for an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

Most of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund – over $12 billion – will be distributed to Local Education Agencies (LEAs), that is, school districts and charter schools. States must allocate at least 90% to LEAs as subgrants in the proportion that the LEAs receive Title I funds. LEAs and states can use their allocations from this Emergency Relief Fund for a wide range of expenditures related to the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures.

The uses identified in the CARES Act include, but are not limited to:

  • any activity authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and other education statutes;
  • “[a]ctivities to address the unique needs of low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth;”
  • purchasing educational technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity);
  • providing mental health services and supports; and
  • “[p]lanning for and coordinating during long-term closures, including for how to provide meals to eligible students, how to provide technology for online learning to all students, how to provide guidance for carrying out requirements under the [IDEA] and how to ensure other educational services can continue to be provided consistent with all Federal, State, and local requirements.”

While the CARES Act includes a maintenance of effort provision, requiring states receiving emergency relief funds to hold school funding at current levels in this and the upcoming fiscal year, the Act also allows U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to waive this requirement.

Public education advocates must immediately press state education agencies to adopt clear guidance on district use and public reporting of their Emergency Relief allocations. These limited federal funds should be targeted to the most glaring resource gaps impeding districts from delivery of effective and equitable remote learning opportunities to all students. Advocacy will also be required to ensure states do not use the federal funds to make up for state cuts to education by seeking waivers of the maintenance of effort requirement.

Congress and States Must Do Much More

The $13.5 billion in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund can help states and districts meet the immediate challenge of providing effective and equitable opportunities for all students, though more funds may be needed even in the short-term. States must also prepare for the likelihood that thousands, if not millions, of students will return to school having experienced significant learning loss. These students will require remedial and “compensatory” services, programs and interventions to make up for that loss and put them academically back on track as quickly as possible. Vulnerable student populations will be most impacted and most in need.

COVID-19 school closures will require additional, substantial investments in the nation’s public schools when they reopen. States are already experiencing drops in revenue due to the sudden economic downturn and will likely turn to budget cuts, including in K-12 education. Tennessee lawmakers have already cut millions from planned increases for teacher salaries and other educational services, other states are postponing aid that would boost teacher salaries, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is pressing for authority to cut state aid for schools “on a rolling basis.”

Congress and the states must commit to providing adequate and equitable resources when students finally return to their classroom:

  • Congress must move beyond “emergency” relief to “mitigation” funding for K-12 education far in excess of the Emergency Relief Fund and likely beyond the approximately $70 billion in federal stimulus funds for the 2008 recession. These mitigation funds should be targeted to provide the additional resources necessary for compensatory education for every student to make up lost academic ground as promptly as possible.
  • Federal mitigation funds must also be tied to a firm maintenance of effort requirement not subject to waiver.
  • States must not react to the pandemic by enacting deep and harmful state aid cuts, as occurred during and after the 2008 recession. The harmful impact of those cuts fell on the districts, schools and students with the most need and least ability to make up the funds through increases in local revenue.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings into sharp focus just how vital state public school systems are to children, families and communities across the nation. Beyond their core instructional mission, schools deliver an array of critical nutritional, social and health services to support learning and development. It’s time for Congress to substantially increase the level of funding for K-12 public education while using the full weight of its authority to prevent states from disinvesting in their public schools just when they need resources the most. The nation’s students deserve – and are entitled to – no less.

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Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24

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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240