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Using ESSER funds

What to Consider When Planning How to Spend CARES/ESSER Dollars

Over the last 18 months, we have faced more challenges as educators than one would hope to encounter in an entire career. Because we are a resilient workforce, educators met the COVID and racism pandemics in the virtual space with perseverance and integrity. Our leaders and our teachers have shown unparalleled resilience and innovation matched only by the resilience and innovation of our young people.

The federal government has pledged dollars to help support “learning loss” over the next four years. These dollars will come in waves, and while welcomed by all, will also present some challenges. How we handle these challenges over the next three to four months is critical. Below I offer a few suggestions to consider as you think about using these dollars and planning for the future.

Suggestion 1: Check In on Your team, Especially Your Students

Some of us have already welcomed students back into our buildings, but many of us haven’t been in the same room with our students in well over a year.

As we kick off the 2021–22 school year, there is nothing more important or time sensitive than checking in on the social and emotional well-being of our teams and our students. Don’t expect they will be broken. Most aren’t! It may be worthwhile to:

  • Debrief and check in on how the world has changed over the last year.
  • Document how students see themselves in this new world.
  • Observe and take note of how students (and teachers) engage with schooling in new and different ways.
  • Consider how your students have coped with loss/grief over the last year.
  • Determine what is to be celebrated.
  • Check in on confidence levels of students and staff.
  • Consider ways you can support or celebrate the resilience they have built.

Listen and check in on the health and well-being of our young people at a rate that feels repetitive and becomes a part of your daily routine. This time with your students and team will support your decisions with resources.

Suggestion 2: Reframe “Learning Loss” Into “Creating a New Tomorrow”

The federal government coined the term “learning loss” to clearly communicate their concern for youth and the learning challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented to traditional learning. I challenge you, as decision makers and influencers, to leave that term in your grant writing and reading and shift your communication to a much more asset-based approach.

While these past 18 months have been anything but normal, we now have an opportunity to hit the reset button on our schooling system. Our system of public education was broken for many of the students. As leaders, we don’t have to accept this “learning loss” paradigm. Amazing learning went on over this past year. It might feel unconventional but interrogate what students have GAINED over the last 18 months. How have these lived experiences supported their learning and success? How have our students solved problems many adults struggle with, built resilience and grit, found a whole new sense of purpose for school, used technology in ways they had never been given the opportunity for before, gained time management skills, and more.

We MUST communicate, with optimism in our actions and words and focus on the assets that our teachers and our students bring back to the school building. Operating with a deficit-based mindset helps no one and creates more stressors on an already stretched body of stakeholders. Support your teachers as they work to uncover the critical thinking, design skills, and decision-making opportunities students took advantage of over this last school year. Use these federal dollars to create new pathways and opportunities for our young people and to retool schooling to serve all, especially those who have been traditionally marginalized by our system.

Using ESSER fundsSuggestion 3: Frame All Decisions, Putting Students First, Teachers Second, and Families Third

As you make decisions about stakeholders and how to delegate resources, consider the sieve — students first, teachers second, families third. This is an almost foolproof way for vetting and making decisions.

A quick example:

As you contemplate next years’ calendar, you may be considering year-round schools and/or shifting your holiday break times. As you make final decisions utilize the sieve.

Students first: Which calendar best serves the learning needs of our students? Why?

Teachers second: Does the decision for students cause any problems for teachers? Are there new opportunities in this calendar? If so, what? How can we mitigate these shifts for teachers without compromising our decision for students?

Families third: When we make decisions with their children in mind, families can usually support them. However, note how shifts might cause new challenges for families and support with solutions and opportunities to mitigate.

Suggestion 4: Use a Good Portion of Your CARES Dollars to Build Capacity in Your Teachers and Leaders

Many school organizations will be receiving millions of dollars to support the transition back to school. While safety measures and personnel decisions are important, it is also wise to invest in the capacity of your current team.

Note as you make decisions about these dollars that the “normal” ways of schooling didn’t serve the needs of many students. As you allocate resources, consider:

  • What types of training do you want to put in place that will support your teachers and students for generations to come?
  • How will you utilize dollars to ensure your teachers can create more equitable outcomes for ALL students, particularly those who have been historically marginalized?
  • How will you build a platform of equity and anti-racism so all adults and young people in our systems are given space to grapple with and explore how they can confront and interrogate their paradigms?

As you face the upcoming school year, I hope the suggestions above support your decisions with the flood of dollars coming your way. Your immediate worry is to ensure your students are mentally and physically well. After that, take your time, engage with other thought leaders, craft plans, and hear voices about how to best utilize these dollars to support the financial and capacity needs of your team, in service of student success for every student, every day.

As you think about capacity building and your work in anti-racism, we hope you will consider our Real Time Teacher Coaching and Real Time Leadership Coaching. If we can be of assistance or thought partnership, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team.

Additional resources on this topic:

By Kristyn Klei Borrero, Ed.D., CT3 co-founder

CT3 transforms the quality and culture of education for youth, especially those in traditionally disenfranchised communities.

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