What is ESSER Funding and How Can Schools Use It?

Throughout the rollercoaster of the pandemic, schools have dominated the headlines, with nightly newscast debates over whether, when and how to reopen schools to students. Missed in much of the discourse, however, is coverage of an important new funding source for K-12 institutions.

With the passing of the American Rescue Plan in March 2021, $122 billion of federal funding was released for use in updating, renovating and reopening schools in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. These funds, dubbed the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, are available to be designated for public K-12 schools through September, 30 2022.

With that deadline in mind, now is the time for schools to claim and apportion ESSER funds for projects to improve their facilities, grounds and social-emotional learning (SEL) experiences. Here is an overview of where, when and how K-12 schools can use ESSER funds.

Who Can Use ESSER Funds?

ESSER funds are specifically designated for use in local, public K-12 school districts in the 50 United States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Any schools operating in a recognized local educational agency in those areas can apply to access funding.

That, though, doesn’t mean that K-12 schools outside of local educational agencies are excluded from American Rescue Plan funding. Separate funds were set up to accommodate many of those groups, including Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools (EANS) funds for private schools and an Educational Stabilization Fund to the Outlying Areas for other non-state territories.

How Do Schools Access ESSER Funds?

While ESSER funds are federally apportioned funds available for use by local school districts, the funds are actually accessed by state education agencies. State agencies (Departments of Education, Offices of Public Instruction, etc.) received funds directly from the federal government and are under obligation to designate at least 90% of those funds for distribution to local agencies by the September 30 deadline. Local school districts must then contact their respective state agencies to reserve ESSER funds.

States can reserve up to 10% of ESSER funds for later distribution, though they are not required to do so. The reserved percentage is available for use at the state agency’s discretion, meaning that it may not be directly dispersed to local districts. With that in mind, it would be best practice for local agencies to pursue ESSER funding ahead of the September 30, 2022, deadline, rather than hoping funds will still be available afterward.

Schools and districts are labeled as “subrecipients” of ESSER funds, with states acting as the primary recipients. As such, state agencies ultimately determine which local applicants receive funding. Once a local agency receives the funds, they must “obligate” them for specific projects.

What Can ESSER Funds Be Used For?

The main objective of ESSER funding is to help alleviate learning gaps created by the school-from-home model used during the COVID-19 pandemic. With that in mind, connecting projects back to a positive impact on student learning experiences, SEL and accessibility may improve the odds of funding request success.

Technically, state agencies do not have the authority to limit the use of ESSER funds, so long as the local designation for the funds falls into the list of approved activities in section 18003(d) of the bill. But the list of activities is broad, stretching from the procurement of PPE to facilities upgrades to providing student meals.

In-class tech enhancements to improve on-site and hybrid learning will likely be a common investment for schools utilizing ESSER funds. Air filtration and HVAC upgrades will be, as well. Many schools will look to update facilities for social distancing and stock up on disinfectants or cleaning supplies. Some may also apply for funds in order to provide mental health and counselling services to students whose families have been particularly affected by the pandemic.

Helping You Maximize ESSER Funds

Gordian’s procurement solutions are an ideal way for K-12 schools to maximize their ESSER funds when renovating their facilities, installing tech upgrades or replacing building systems. Our streamlined method for procuring contractor work enables schools to quickly stand up project plans, meaning that more projects can be completed in the compressed timelines of school breaks.

With summer approaching, now is the time for school and district leaders to begin creating project plans to ensure their ESSER funds are committed before the September deadline. If you have questions about how to utilize ESSER funding or our procurement, contact Gordian today, and one of our procurement experts will be in touch with you shortly.

About Gordian

Gordian is the leader in facility and construction cost data, software and services for all phases of the building lifecycle. A pioneer of Job Order Contracting, Gordian’s solutions also include proprietary RSMeans data construction costs and Facility Intelligence Solutions. From planning to design, to procurement, construction and operations, Gordian’s solutions help clients maximize efficiency, optimize cost savings and increase building quality.