The End of ESSER: What Educators Need to Know

build back better act
(Image credit: Pixabay)

The U.S. government’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund and grant program, which helped so many educational institutes weather the rough days of the COVID-19 pandemic and continued recovery, is drawing to an end. 

Greg Bagby, Coordinator of Instructional Technology at Hamilton County Schools in Tennessee, discusses the impact ESSER funds have had on schools and how districts can prepare to soften the loss of the program’s assistance.

The End of ESSER: Using ESSER Funds to Best Advantage 

“With our funding, we worked to build student access to digital tools and connectivity for all the students in the district,” says Bagby. “We have connected all students with one-to-one devices, virtually eliminating the digital divide.”

This progressive thinking and spending has helped schools use funds in ways that will continue to benefit future students. As we have seen, many ideas that were introduced during the pandemic have become part of daily life, so it seems unlikely learning will ever return to exactly what it was beforehand. 

Connectivity and the understanding that in-person is not the only approach of imparting knowledge are two major elements of the new normal. Another positive by-product has been the end of socioeconomic barriers such as the digital divide that have long plagued schools in efforts to find true equity in the classroom.

“There was also a focus on learning loss through after-school and summer school programs,” says Bagby. “The impact we are seeing in regard to those concerns are the achievement scores reaching pre-pandemic numbers in many areas.”

While post-summer learning loss was an issue that was battled long before the arrival of COVID-19, it has taken on new importance in its wake, and to see improvement through an objective result is encouraging and a sign of ESSER funds are being used to best advantage.

Educators and ESSER 

Another major issue companies in all industries are facing in this new era is the resurgence of elevated expectations of worker rights and employees demanding equity in elements such as pay, benefits, and quality of life. Education also has been hindered by a lack of staffing and workers refusing to return to the pre-pandemic expectations of in-person work and hours. 

“We also focused on teacher retention through retention bonuses and differentiated compensation,” says Bagby. “This has provided us with the ability to retain a higher percentage of teachers than some surrounding districts.”

Some savvy districts have used ESSER funds to bolster their competitive employment offers, ensuring a happy and reliable staff, resulting in a successful restart and continuity for students when returning to in-person learning. 

Even in the education arena educators are reconsidering their options and demanding a better work-life balance. Recently, a district outside of Las Vegas was forced to suspend elementary and secondary classes due to a teacher shortage. Some savvy districts used ESSER funds to bolster their competitive offers, ensuring a happy and reliable staff, resulting in a successful restart and continuity for students when they returned.

4 Ways to Prepare for The End of ESSER Funding 

  1. Use analytics to see which digital programs, platforms, and apps are actually being used by staff to determine if there are tools that are not or providing a good return on investment and can be jettisoned. 
  2. Search for local grants and partnerships to pull in community resources to assist with building sustainable methods and programs. 
  3. Create a timeline featuring the tools you have that may expire with lesser funding and search for ways these may be replaced through free resources or other comparable products. 
  4. Look for education grants from the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for Humanities, and others to acquire funds for teacher training and PD in those areas. 

Looking to the Future 

The inevitable end of ESSER funds has schools scrambling to best protect the strides they have made in these pandemic-time improvements. Districts can still lessen the impact of the loss of these funds by resourceful analysis to determine overlap and superfluous programs. 

“Schools should look for duplication of services to see where services can be reduced,” says Bagby. “Either for software products or services provided by specific companies.”

Districts can also approach their tech partners to determine which programs might be continued at a discount or modified manner to still allow students the benefits of which they have become accustomed. Exploring education grants and other new funding options could also reveal programs designed to fill the ESSER fund void. 

Sascha Zuger

Sascha has nearly two decades of experience as a freelance journalist writing for national magazines, including The Washington Post, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and others. She writes about education, travel and culinary topics.