Making the most of ESSER funds

Take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to improve your schools — and your outcomes

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Congress directed much-needed aid to local education agencies via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund. Three major relief bills signed in 2020 and 2021 earmarked nearly $190.5 billion for K-12 education. ESSER funds help schools create safe learning environments for students (in-person and virtual), address learning losses caused by the pandemic, and support students’ mental health. Each state gets a portion of the funds to distribute to local school districts that apply for them; these districts can allocate the money according to local needs and priorities. ESSER funds are available to public schools, nonprofit private schools [1], and charter schools. As we head into summer, school administrators are working hard to determine how to best apply these funds to meet the unique needs of their students, staff, and facilities.

While states are responsible for distributing the funds, they can’t set additional restrictions for how local school districts may use them. And the U.S. Department of Education says that the program provides school districts “considerable flexibility in determining how best to use ESSER funds.” [2] ESSER funds are not subject to Title I requirements, nor is there a “supplement, not supplant requirement.” Given their origins in a national crisis that hit K–12 schools particularly hard, ESSER funds can meet an array of emergent needs.

How can you use ESSER funds?

School districts can spend ESSER funds on any use authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Additionally, projects that fit into the following categories are eligible.

School Spaces Designed for Social Distancing - CafeteriaPreparedness and response to COVID-19

Schools can use ESSER funds to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and prepare for future outbreaks by:

  • Making school facility repairs and improvements to lower environmental health hazards and reduce the risk of viral transmission
  • Purchasing PPE and sanitization supplies
  • Modifying classrooms, common areas, and playgrounds to allow for social distancing
  • Improving the air quality in school buildings

Addressing long-term school closure

A near-universal element of the 2020-2021 school year was the rise of virtual learning: whether in place of classroom learning during lockdowns, as part of a hybrid model, or on a continuing basis for students who opt to stay home. ESSER funds can smooth the transition to virtual education by:

  • Acquiring new digital tools to assist in teaching, scheduling, and collaboration, and training staff to use them
  • Supporting teachers in modifying curricula for virtual learning
  • Increasing support staffing (such as librarians and technology help desk personnel)
  • Improving and updating technological infrastructure
  • Purchasing new educational technology

Addressing learning loss

One key purpose of ESSER funds is to remedy learning loss among students during a tumultuous school year, especially students who are already at risk of falling behind their peers. Twenty percent of funds received in the third round of ESSER funding (via the American Rescue Plan Act) must go toward activities aimed at combatting learning loss, such as:

  • Providing summer and after-school learning and enrichment opportunities
  • Addressing the needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and children and youth in foster care
  • Improving student attendance and engagement
  • Connecting with families to inform them of available opportunities

School Calming RoomMental health support

It’s been a tough year for students as they navigate a global pandemic, the isolation of virtual learning, separation from their peers, and perhaps grief or economic hardship. Schools may use ESSER funds to support students’ mental health by:

  • Implementing evidence-based programs to support social and emotional learning, resilience, and trauma sensitivity
  • Designing classrooms and other in-school spaces to promote relationship building and mental wellness
  • Offering mental health supports and triage for returning students, including grief counseling

Continued staff employment

Meeting the needs of a scattered student body has required many school districts to increase staffing. ESSER funds can support:

  • Hiring extra substitute teachers to support flexible scheduling
  • Offering more generous sick leave to encourage staff to stay home when they don’t feel well
  • Continuing to employ current staff

When do ESSER funds expire?

ESSER funds provided by the CARES Act (March 2020) must be obligated by September 30, 2022 — that is, they don’t need to be spent but must be committed to a specific purpose, so there should be a purchase order in place. Funds from the second and third rounds of funding (November 2020 and March 2021) must be obligated by September 30, 2023.

ESSER funds allow school administrators to dream big

Beyond meeting the challenges of the current pandemic, ESSER funds offer educators and administrators the chance to make critical investments in infrastructure, technology, and equipment that will impact generations of students. The pandemic revealed fault lines that existed before COVID-19, and it has been uniquely stressful for educators and students — ESSER funds provide an opportunity to rectify these issues.

How might the students in your school or district benefit from the following types of projects?

  • Social/emotional learning
    Create spaces and resources that address students’ social and emotional intelligence and coping skills
  • Hands-on STEAM resources
    Maker spaces, durable science equipment, and activities promote learning by trying, doing, failing, and trying again
  • Flexible learning environments
    Outdoor classrooms can be created and deconstructed in moments
  • Accommodating diverse learning styles
    Think modular furniture that can support individual or group work, and kinesthetic movement for students who think best when they aren’t sitting still

Whatever you imagine for your students, ESSER funds are a valuable opportunity to bring that vision to life. With this critical funding, K–12 school districts can address pandemic losses, help students safely reacclimate to in-person learning, and ensure that whenever the next challenge arises, your schools will be ready.

Wondering how to optimize relief funding?

Download this guide for practical and aspirational ideas to help you shape the future of education in your community.

[1] Private schools received separate emergency funding from the CRRSA and ARPA, so they are not eligible for the second and third rounds of ESSER funding. Nonprofit private schools may receive CARES Act ESSER funding.

[2] U.S. Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. 2020. “Frequently Asked Questions about the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund).” Accessed June 3, 2021.


Kate Larson

Kate Larson

Kate is a writer and researcher with a background in nonprofit communications. She has planned financial literacy workshops in Kenya, spent late nights writing grant applications, and distributed hands-on K-8 science resources to teachers across the U.S. She is particularly interested in the ways that language drives behavior change through education, awareness-building, and the power of an irresistible narrative.