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Funding Doctor Shares Top Strategies to Maximize K-12 ESSER Funds

Known as the Funding Doctor, Dr. Paula Love, in partnership with Raptor Technologies, is helping districts navigate and maximize COVID-19 stimulus funds to address school safety now and beyond the pandemic. In a recent webinar, Dr. Love answered schools most pressing questions and provided overall strategies for applying and spending these funds. Our conversation is summarized below. Listen to our full discussion in on-demand webinar here.

What are COVID-19 stimulus funds?

The three Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) give K-12 districts the opportunity to make sustainable investments for COVID-19 response and ongoing school safety needs. In March 2020, the CARES Act provided $13.2 billion to ESSER. The CRRSA Act was signed in December 2020, providing $54.3 billion to ESSER. The latest funding comes from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which passed in March 2021 and provides $123 billion to ESSER. The table below compares the average per pupil dollar amount for each stimulus fund.

CARES CRRSA ARP
$270 per pupil $1,100 per pupil $2,600 per pupil

How are ESSER funds different than competitive grants?

The ESSER funds are formula funds, which means there is a pre-determined allocation amount based on certain criteria. Dr. Love compares formula funding to a drip coffee machine. “You put the coffee grinds and the water in, and the coffee automatically flows down. When I think about ESSER funds…it is like that drip coffee maker. I put in the right formula and [the funding] automatically comes out.” 

In this scenario, the right formula is completing your application on time and ensuring you meet all the requirements, such as writing your reopening and continuity plan. When schools meet these requirements, they automatically receive the funding that was allocated to them. Note, state education agencies will have a process and timeline to distribute funds, but districts will typically see their funds within 30-90 days after meeting all requirements.  

“But there is another kind of coffee maker,” Dr. Love continues. “It requires creativity and maybe even someone who really knows how to handle it in order to get the right requirements for that coffee to come out correctly. That’s the espresso or cappuccino machine. When I think about this coffee machine, I think about the competitive funds…there may be a lot of money but only the people who put the right requirements in will get that winning cup of coffee.” 

Can ESSER funds be used for school safety software?

“This is a resounding yes,” Dr. Love answers. “If we dive in and look at the allowable uses of the funds and at everything that is happening during this pandemic, we know…these dollars do align, and we can use this money to help us with school safety.” 

For example, one of the allowable expenses is investing in resources to implement the CDC’s K-12 operational strategies for in-person learning, including processes for both health screening and prompt contact tracing. Health screening helps keep infected individuals off campus, while maintaining accurate visitor records can help with contact tracing efforts when someone who was on campus tests positive for COVID-19. 

To simplify these activities, schools can use funding to purchase an automated visitor management system. School visitor management software will continue to be a core component to school safety long after the pandemic ends by screening for sex offenders, alerting staff of custody issues, providing district-wide reporting, and integrating with your emergency management system.  

What are top strategies to help me apply for funds?

Whether you are applying for a competitive or formula grant, the strategies are similar. Dr. Loves five strategies include:

  1. Alignment to Protect Your School: Districts need to evaluate their school safety priorities, how these funds align with their goals and objectives, and if the fund allows the purchase under its requirements.
  2. Invest Wisely: It’s very important to begin with the budget, to know how much money you have, so that you can invest it wisely, Dr. Love advises. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) released questions shown below to help districts determine how to spend their funds. These are the guiding principles and the thought process schools need to go through before investing their dollars from ESSER.
    • Will the proposed use of funds prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19?
    • Is it an allowable use of funds under the CARES Act?
    • Is it reasonable and necessary?
    • Does it promote equity?
    • Does it support returning students to the classroom?
  3. Process, Application, and Deadlines: Every state has a different application process and timeline. Schools must go to their state education agency to understand what their state is doing,Dr. Love recommends. Schools are also required to publish a reopening and continuity plan before receiving ARP funds.
  4. Timely Submission: Some districts are hiring writers or ESSER Coordinators to lead their application process. Dr. Love recommends that school safety directors or coordinators are involved with the application process. Their involvement will help ensure that the grant writers understand the schools needs and that the application is aligned with the schools priorities.
  5. Sustainability and Maximizing Use of Funds: “Think of formula funds as the opportunity to sustain efforts, Dr. Love shares. Now is the time to look at school safety software that can address COVID-19s impact so that you can focus on reopening and keeping your students, staff, and communities safe during and well beyond the pandemic.

“The process of grant writing always remains the same. (1) Look at the alignment of funds and (2) where it is in your priorities and budget,” Dr. Love says. “We then need to (3) look at the application process and be mindful of (4) submission [and obligation] deadlines. Finally, and most importantly, we need to know how we can (5) sustain these programs. When we take these five components, we end up with a safer school.” 

What is an obligation deadline?

Obligating your funds means you have a concrete plan and have committed to using your funds for specific solutions by the provided deadline. Dr. Love further says, “It’s almost like we have our Purchase Order on file, and we know that the purchase is going to happen.” The obligation deadline for each ESSER fund is: 

  • September 30, 2022 for CARES
  • September 30, 2023 for CRRSA
  • September 30, 2024 for ARP

We have an amazing opportunity to really look at different ways and different opportunities to spend and invest wisely, not only to help during this pandemic, but even thinking beyond when we’re looking at that 2024 obligation deadline,” Dr. Love concludes.  

What about private schools?

The Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools (EANS) provides funds for private schools. Under ARP, non-public schools can only use EANS funds for future expenses and those who serve low-income families are prioritized to receive funds. EANS funds can be used to remediate learning loss and for contact tracing needs.

How can I find additional help?

Ensuring you meet ESSER requirements, addressing COVID-19, and maintaining a safe environment for your school community does not have to be daunting. Raptor’s Guide to K-12 Safe School Reopening provides insight into how schools across the country are leveraging COVID-19 stimulus funds for a safer return to school. The guide breaks down each ESSER fund and provides checklists for your required reopening and continuity plan.  

To learn more and access supporting documentation that can help your grant team get funding approval, download our guide or contact us today to talk to a safety expert.