How The CARES Act Will Impact K-12 Education During and After The Coronavirus Pandemic

4/20/2020 Staff
Lesson Plan Team

While school teachers and administrators have been scrambling to adjust to widespread classroom shutdowns and a shift to online teaching during the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, they haven't had a lot of time to think about the big picture or long-term impact on schools. Right now, it seems hard enough to just get through the day.

Fortunately, the government is stepping up to make your life a little easier.

The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, H.R. 478) was passed in late March, an omnibus $2.2 trillion aid package offering financial relief for:

  • Unemployed workers
  • The healthcare industry and workers
  • Businesses of all sizes
  • Individual taxpayers

The education sector is also a big part of the package, taking up the entire Title II of the Act with a variety of measures intended to help out your students and make your job a little easier.

CARES is More Than a Short-Term Measure

CARES and its successors could end up playing a big part in your career over the next couple of years. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance estimates that short-term school closures have little effect on disease spread, instead predicting that closures of eight to twenty weeks are the minimum required to keep the spread in check. Many districts and some states have already bowed to the inevitable and committed to online schooling for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school years.

But with even the most aggressive CDC recommendations for keeping schools closed going only as far out as September, there are concerns that a second wave of infections may emerge in the fall according to many experts

Depending on vaccine development and other control measures, education and epidemiological experts foresee the possibility of a series of rolling, targeted school closures being needed to suppress fresh outbreaks, possibly extending into 2021.

How CARES Aims To Support School Systems

CARES takes two main approaches to helping schools through the COVID-19 crisis, but there are many tangential aspects of the bill that will also give teachers and students some assistance.

The two main efforts are both financial:

  • The bill earmarks some $30 billion in funding through various sources bound for distribution to both higher education and K-12 schools
  • The bill changes a number of provisions related to existing federal funding to ensure certain vial funding is still available even while schools are closed

The other aspects of the bill that will help out K-12 schools include:

  • Funds to support the development of rural distance learning programs
  • Paycheck protection provisions that could assist private school operators and teachers
  • Support for continued teacher training to keep the teacher education pipeline open. These would include:
    • Relaxing federal work study requirements
    • Relaxed rules for various student loan and financial aid programs
    • Waivers of student obligations to return Pell Grant funds
    • TEACH grant service obligations relaxed

It's a big bucket of assistance measures, but, considering how slowly the education system moves at the best of times, you are probably rightly concerned about when and how the help will actually get to you.

How and When CARES Funds Will Reach Your School

Like any government program, CARES starts to get complicated when you get down to the details of how it will actually get you what you need.

For starters, there's the way that the funds are broken down. Of the $30 billion, much is heading toward the higher education support described above. The money that's going to K-12 schools will fall into the following pools:

  • $13.4 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESERF)
  • $3 billion to governor discretionary spending
  • $307.5 million to states facing the highest coronavirus burden
  • $153.75 million each to the Bureau of Indian Education and schools in federal outlying areas (Guam, American Samoa, etc-Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. are both considered states for the purposes of the Act)

The bulk of the money is primarily split into two different streams, each with different restrictions and mechanisms for distributing the money:

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESERF)

The bulk of the funds will come down through ESERF, allocated to states on the basis of their current Title I funding portions for high-poverty schools. The money will be distributed by the various state departments of education, which will each work out their own timelines and methods for filing requests.

The good news is that at least 90 percent of the money must be sub-allocated to individual districts based on their Title I shares. The bad news is that most state education departments haven't yet worked out exactly how each school should apply for the money or when it will be distributed. Because of various notification restrictions built into the bill, about the latest that the funding could arrive would be near the end of May, though.

Funds awarded are available through approximately the end of 2021 for allocation and disbursement, although an extension should be available to take them in 2022.

Most state agencies are attempting to streamline their existing application processes, requiring only basic budgetary outlines and minimal narrative requirements. And although the district itself will receive funding in proportion to Title I, that is where the allocation stops-the money can be distributed to schools within the district regardless of their Title I status.

The ESERF funds are also restricted for only twelve approved uses:

  • Uses articulated under ESEA, IDEA, Perkins, Subtitle B of Title VII of Mckinney-Vento, AEFLA, Native Education Acts, and the Support and Assistance Act
  • Coordination efforts with public health departments
  • Providing resources for school leaders
  • Activities addressing needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, ELL, racial and ethnic minorities, homeless youth, and youth in foster care
  • Developing and implementing preparedness and response efforts
  • Training and professional development for sanitization practices
  • Purchasing sanitization supplies
  • Planning and coordinating for administrative aspects of long-term closures, including meal provision, technology, and IDEA guidance
  • Purchasing educational technology
  • Mental health services
  • Planning summer learning and supplementary after-school programs
  • Other activities necessary to maintain operation and continuity of services with existing staff

In addition to provision 12, eligibility for individual districts is pegged to their commitment to continue employment for the duration of the disruptions, and to maintaining educational support through 2021 (unless they get a special waiver from the Secretary of Education). That means any district that wants to accept the funds-and who doesn't?-will have to guarantee teacher jobs. So a secondary effect of ESERF is to offer some real job stability to K-12 teachers.

Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF)

The $3 billion in funds distributed through GEERF is a lot less than the ESERF package, but there are far fewer restrictions on spending as well. Governors will have wide discretion to distribute and earmark funds within their states.

The money is divided among the states based on both population and income ranges, with 60 percent factored for population, and 40 percent based on poverty level.

The money can be used to support:

  • Emergency Educational Services
    • Child Care/Early Education
    • Social/Emotional Support
    • Protection of Education Related Jobs
  • Grants to districts and colleges most significantly impacted by COVID
    • Support continued educational services
    • Ongoing functionality

The Department of Education began taking applications for GEERF funds on April 14. The state-level allocation and distribution will be decided independently by governor's offices.

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Other Provisions in CARES That Impact K-12 Schools

Many of the provisions in the Act are designed simply to maintain existing federal funding streams by relaxing requirements that schools may not be able to fulfill during the coronavirus shutdown:

  • Relieves testing and accountability requirements from ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).
  • Loosens Title I achievement, reporting, and spending requirements; districts may request waivers in reading, math, science, and exempts identification of low-performing schools.
  • Allows Title I funds that can't be spent as currently allocated to be applied forward to the following school year.
  • Drops some spending requirements for Title IV-A (Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant) funds that otherwise make them "use it or lose it" and removes technology purchase limits.

Many of these are discretionary decisions that can be made by the Secretary of Education.

The Act also allocates $100 million support for Safe Schools and Citizenship Education Initiatives through Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence), offering support for education-related services including counseling and mental health services and disinfecting school facilities.

And it frees up funds under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act for rapid response related to COVID-19 national emergency, which may be applied to certain vocational studies or other workforce training programs in public schools.

CARES is Not the Only Assistance Effort for American Educators

It's not just the CARES Act providing support for education during the pandemic, however. Other Congressional and administration efforts have been underway to support both American workers generally and educators specifically during the crisis.

For example, although it's not specially aimed at education, House Resolution 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, has a number of provisions that both provide funding and offer other supports to workers and families that should make your lives easier. The bill:

  • Expands the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide up to 12 weeks of protected leave for extended work absences related to the novel coronavirus
  • Expands unemployment insurance
  • Offers $1 billion in additional funding for food security programs including school lunch programs
  • Provides designated educational funding for a number of programs for students:
    • $750 million head start
    • $25 millions runaway and homeless youth
    • $3.5 billion childcare
    • $25 million distance learning in rural areas

There is also a lot of Department of Education regulatory discretion that may come into play during the crisis. The Secretary of Education has broad authority to give schools more flexibility in a number of current funding systems, and relax reporting restrictions and other requirements that may be difficult to meet in the current circumstances. Examples of this can include:

  • IDEA compliance
  • Rehabilitation Act
  • Perkins Act
  • Additional ESSA relief

In fact, on April 6, the Secretary announced a streamlined waiver process to repurpose existing federal K-12 fundingfor coronavirus-response related purposes.

CARES May Fall Short of what Educators Need During COVID-19

$30 odd billion isn't pocket change, but there are some big reasons to think it might not be enough to get schools through the COVID-19 crisis, either.

The original CARES proposal included $2 billion in connectivity funding that might have gone toward addressing some of the issues you are no doubt running into right now with internet access for some of your students, or maybe even yourself and fellow teachers.

Some states and districts are slapping band-aids on these problems, like loaning out laptops from current stocks as the Los Angeles Unified School District is doing for students without computers at home. For some of those problems, such solutions may not be sustainable over a full year of mandatory online education in some areas. And in many cases, the underlying issues are grievous problems in America's internet service, already ranked the worst in the developed world according to the FCC.

Other parts of the proposal were also sharply chopped down in negotiations with the Senate. The original allocations for ESERF and GEERF were $15 billion each, more than double what was finally provided.

There are likely to be a number of technical issues that emerge through the implementation of the Act; it was drafted quickly and negotiated in haste, and lawyers and lawmakers aren't immune to typos. The reliance on existing frameworks for distributing the funds may also prove inefficient. Relying on existing poverty calculations used for Title I purposes can't account for the different patterns that sudden and widespread unemployment will create. Traditionally impoverished areas that have high proportions of service workers who are nonetheless currently classified as essential might be in better shape by next fall than middle-class areas where layoffs are rampant, for instance.

There's also some potential concern about whether even the full $30 billion will be spent. President Trump recently indicated his intention to begin re-opening the country ahead of schedule. It's unclear exactly what form that might take, but CARES is written to be contingent on various federal declarations of emergency. Although all of those have been declared, it's unclear if the president's plan involves revoking them, or what effect that would have on undistributed CARES funds. With so much happening in the country these days, it's basically uncharted territory.

More Measures Are Likely to Come Before COVID-19 is Over

Considering all that, and assuming the situation does not improve rapidly or that political squabbles don't derail relief efforts, it's likely that CARES will not be the last coronavirus-related package passed by Congress.

The longer the shutdowns run, the more likely the appropriated money will be insufficient.

It's also likely after a few months that people will stop thinking solely on an emergency basis and start thinking more about what the future of American education looks like. The issues teachers are facing today are in some cases really just an acceleration of issues that were already causing real problems in the education system:

  • Pervasive inequity of technology access and support - Students without technology at home were already falling behind their peers; now, they are unable to participate at all.
  • Lack of educational support in the home - Strong parental support has always had a lot to do with how well schools perform. With COVID-19 demanding at-home learning, it's now absolutely mandatory.
  • Excessive classroom sizes - Managing a class of 30 kids in person is a major challenge; with remote teaching shrinking them into 30 tiny boxes on a laptop monitor, it's outright impossible.

Crises often bring opportunities. You can expect to see teachers unions and advocacy groups pushing hard to drive real, long-lasting systemic changes to address these problems instead of simply a series of stopgap measures. It might seem counterintuitive that you could correct some of the big picture problems in education while a recession is underway, but with funding available, now is the time to earmark the money required to staff an adequate number of teachers. With decisive action now in lieu of years of wrangling for education dollars, this could actually prove to be the cheapest and fastest way to resolve the problem once and for all.

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