by Guneeta Chadha
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act is the third Federal COVID-relief package passed by Congress as an economic-relief package that aims to build a bridge to an equitable economic recovery. The ARP Act was signed by President Joe Biden in March 2021, aiming to create millions of additional well-paying jobs, combat climate justice, advance racial equity, and provide schools with the resources they need to re-open safely. The ARP also aims to cut child poverty by 50% this year and will have a third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funding (ESSER III) to help re-open schools safely and with attention to the social, emotional, and academic needs of students.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funding supports K-12 educational entities to “prevent, prepare, and respond to the impacts of COVID-19.” With the latest ESSER III funding stream, each school district in Washington state can review the estimated funding they will be receiving through ESSER III. In total, Washington State will be receiving $1,852,501,071 American Rescue Plan ESSER funds to help re-open schools safely. These funds can be used to:
- Modify space so students can socially distance;
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE);
- Ensure every school has access to a nurse;
- Increase transportation capacity;
- Hire counselors to support students as they transition back into classrooms;
- Mitigate learning loss — including social and emotional needs; and
- Deliver summer enrichment programs.
It’s important to note that although the ESSER III funding will be used to “prevent, prepare, and respond to the impacts of COVID-19,” districts have the discretion to use funds to address learning loss and focus on social and emotional needs of students — specifically Black, Indigenous, and youth of color. In a study conducted by McKinsey & Company in December 2020, students of color might be 6-12 months behind by the end of this academic year in June 2021, compared with 4-8 months for White students.
Elevating Student Voice
The Road Map Project — which is a collective-impact initiative that aims to improve student achievement in South King County — recently conducted a study that elevates the voices of young people and the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. When young people were asked how COVID-19 has affected different aspects of their lives, many responded by sharing the detrimental effects the pandemic has had on them in areas of employment, education, relationships with people close to them, mental health, access to basic needs, and more. They also shared what their schools could do differently post-pandemic to holistically support students — such as prioritize financial security; actively involve young people at the program, school, college, district, and community levels; offer accessible mental health resources; and advance racial equity. Recent studies from McKinsey & Company have also shown that there is a path forward to curb learning losses, despite hybrid classrooms being a reality for months to come.
Broadening the definition of learning
Although the term “learning loss” can lean towards a deficit-based approach that solely focuses on where academic gains were not made, districts can take a more holistic view of their role in a student’s life and re-imagine the narrative and support that students to feel a sense of belonging, to feel connected to adults and peers at school, and to see opportunities that engage their interests and passions. Re-imagining the curriculum, teaching, and technology to support students will help support their skill development, social and emotional well-being, and mental health post-pandemic for years to come. Relevant and allowable expenses include integrating physical and behavioral health services — as well as comprehensive afterschool programs and supports for social and emotional learning — by providing services and summer enrichment programs. Districts should also incorporate the voices of young people in the decision-making process and ask students directly what summer enrichment opportunities excite and engage them.
Child Care, Comprehensive Afterschool and Summer Enrichment
The ESSER III funds can also be used to increase access to programming for child care services. During the COVID-19 Pandemic there has been a significant increase in the need for full-day programming. The Afterschool Alliance has important information on the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), in which they have compiled research for child care services. They dive deep into a recent 2020 survey of parents across the United States, revealing that for every child with access to an afterschool program, three or more were unable to participate due to lack of availability or affordability: “56% of elementary students and 5 million (47%) of middle school students currently not in a program would like to have access.”
Not only that, but survey data has shown that 87% of the afterschool and child care field is concerned for the long-term future and sustainability of programs. Recent studies published by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation express the importance of early child care services and the benefits for young people. Dr. Deborah Lowe Vandell, an Investigator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that both early child care and out-of-school time during elementary school predicted higher academic achievement at age 15. Child care and afterschool services are essential to a young person’s social and emotional learning. The Afterschool Alliance compiled a list of research, where evidence supports that comprehensive afterschool programs — such as 21st Century Community Learning Centers — positively impact student engagement and graduation. 21st Century Community Learning Centers offer elementary, middle, and high school students enriching learning activities outside of the school day. In addition, Community Learning Centers are helping youth gain the skills they need that will benefit them throughout their life. Summer enrichment programs also play a huge role to help youth recover from the damaging impacts of COVID-19 and advance educational equity.
A Path Forward Through Partnerships
To establish these programs that focus on learning loss, social and emotional learning, comprehensive afterschool programs, and summer enrichment programs, it’s important for districts to develop partnerships with youth and family serving organizations. To help you establish these partnerships, Youth Development Executives of King County (YDEKC) has a tool known as the School-Community Partnerships Toolkit, where you can assess readiness, map needs and assets, establish partnerships, work together, and evaluate programs. In addition to the School-Community Partnerships Toolkit, there’s also the Partnership Quick Connections Series which highlights Washington State-based community partners, who share their strategies that have supported their work before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic. (Register here for upcoming Quick Connections.)
In King County, many school districts have strong and emerging partnerships with community-based organizations — some of whom have kept young people engaged in person and online throughout the pandemic in ways that schools were unable to. In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Best Starts for Kids Out-of-School Grantees rose to the challenge and found impactful, innovative ways to support youth throughout the crisis. Programs found creative and flexible ways to provide a range of academic supports, arts, cultural programs, and both online and in-person programming opportunities — primarily providing social and emotional supports to youth who are isolated from their peers. ESSER III funds could be used to strengthen and grow these partnerships in ways that complement school services and strengthen relationships. To find youth programs near you, check out Elevate Washington.
Investing in our youth and working together to help re-open schools safely by building these partnerships across districts and youth-serving organizations will help us bridge the gap of education equity so that our Black, Indigenous, and youth of color thrive. For additional resources, the Afterschool Alliance has a breakdown of what The American Rescue Plan is and how districts can use the ESSER III funds to help re-open schools safely.