American Rescue Plan: Funding Explained…for Schools and Students

By Jenny Barker, Editorial Director, May 12, 2021

A recent webinar featuring presenters from Whiteboard Advisors, The School District of Lee County in Florida, and PresenceLearning provided participants with an in-depth review of what the American Rescue Plan means for student learning, services, and well-being. Read on to learn more about this funding and how school districts can prepare for the benefits of it. 


The American Rescue Plan, passed into law this spring, provides approximately $122 billion for K-12 schools in the United States to create safe learning environments and help students get back on track.

During COVID-19, there have been three rounds of funding for schools that go to the state agencies and then go to the districts.

  • Round 1: In spring 2020, Congress authorized $13 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER I) under the the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
  • Round 2: In December 2020, Congress authorized $54 billion for ESSER II under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA).  
  • Round 3: In March 2021, Congress authorized $122 billion for ESSER III under the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The law also added $3 billion in supplemental funds to the federal fiscal year 2021 IDEA Parts B and C appropriations.

“There’s a lot of money here, and we should be really mindful of how to spend it,” said David DeSchryver, senior vice-president and codirector of research at Whiteboard Advisors, who opened a recent webinar as part of PresenceLearning’s “Lunch & Learn” series on regional and national American Rescue Plan funding. 

In the latest funding for schools, ESSER III, states are called upon to allocate at least 90% of their sub-grants to Local Educational Agencies (LEAs). The state agencies may use 10% of the total state allotment. In the official announcement, the Department of Education said these funds would be made available swiftly.

“This pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on students, parents, educators, and schools, and we know that our schools, students, and communities need help now to reopen safely and quickly, and to stay open,” said Secretary of State Migeul Cardona. 

Here are priorities in the new funding that schools need to know about for student learning, services, and well-being:

Learning Loss

ESSER III is becoming more prescriptive on the use of funds than the previous rounds were, especially in one area of focus: learning loss. 

Guidelines on learning loss spending indicate that State Education Agencies (SEAs) must use not less than 5% of the total state allocation to address learning loss, and districts must use not less than 20% of their allotment to address the issue. The interventions must be based upon evidence and may include programs such as extended school year and after-school programming. The term “learning loss” is written into the statue, but many school officials may choose other ways to address the causes and consequences of lost instructional time.  

“Learning loss is not an asset-based approach to the needs of students,” said DeSchryver. “It inappropriately lays blame for loss of learning on the student.” 

He suggested instead using the terms “lost instruction time” or “learning recovery” in student and parent-facing language. 


Special Education

The latest funding includes $12.6 billion in emergency relief for home and community-based services and $1,400 stimulus payments for dependents over the age of 16. There is also an additional $3 billion for special education. 

The pandemic exposed a need to provide more thoughtful services to students with disabilities,” said DeSchryver. “It created awareness about the benefits of  flexible solutions. The additional funding is a signal that telehealth and teletherapy will likely get more attention in the future.”

DeSchryver said ESSER funding will be distributed to education agencies based upon the Title I formula of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The fund should not replace or offset the state commitment to education, but should support costs related to the pandemic response and related to future planning. This may include a wide range of activities such as professional development, enhanced technology, and additional programming to address learning disruptions. 

“While the $3 billion for IDEA is a huge step forward and a recognition of the impacts the pandemic has had on children with special needs, it does not get us to the 40 percent federal obligation Congress promised when IDEA was passed,” said Kelly Wolfe, senior vice president of compliance at PresenceLearning. “We are still learning about how the loss of in-person school time, access to services and evaluations, and increased need for social-emotional and mental health supports have impacted children’s health and development. As champions for children with special needs, it’s our job to consistently advocate for adequate funding, services, and opportunities for kids.”


Student Mental Health

The urgency of mental health is at the center of ESSER III and, therefore, at the center of deploying interventions that ensure students are well-positioned to learn. 

“Beginning in April 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health–related ED visits among all pediatric ED visits increased and remained elevated through October. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health–related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively,” according to a study cited in the presentation.

For Amy Clark, director of psychological and social work services in The School District of Lee County, behavioral and mental health needs are a priority. During the past year her district turned to teletherapy and remote evaluations with PresenceLearning in order to address their backlog in evaluations and increase capacity for developing students’ coping skills and supporting mental health care.

“We wanted to identify the overall impact of this year on kids and plan ahead to get in front of it,” she said. “The PresenceLearning psychologists we deployed are licensed in Florida and have been trained in our process. They provide the same services as our in-person psychologists, just over the live, online platform. They also give us access to bilingual psychologists.” 

Bilingual providers are critical for a district like Lee County, which is one of the largest districts in the state and consists of 40,000 students for whom English is not the primary language. There are currently a total of five PresenceLearning psychologists working within the district, which Clark says gives them “a variety of resources and expertise to draw from.”


Equity Through Digital Tools 

There is a much-needed emphasis in ESSER III on supporting low-income students and students of color. States must ensure the activities and interventions they deploy will address the disproportionate impact these populations face. States will also need to maintain a high level of support for high-poverty schools. 

“We already knew the disparity existed, and now the pandemic has really exposed this,” said DeSchryver. 

There is also about $7 billion in funding to help close the digital divide. Schools will be able to ensure equitable technology support for all students, including connected devices, internet service, and hotspots to students and teachers for internet use at home. 


The Whole Child Approach

Underlying ESSER III’s focus on student care is a commitment to nurturing the “whole child” in school (not just the child’s academic side). This will mean providing high-quality programming and wraparound services for students and their families, including academic, physical, social-emotional learning, and mental health support. A number of programs should be geared toward accelerating learning, which might include expanded opportunities for 1:1 tutoring and summer school. 

The funding also supports educators and staff in carrying out their new and expanded roles. Schools will not only be able to prevent layoffs that had once seemed imminent, but will also be able to hire additional team members. Other investments might focus on providing new methods and tools for engagement with parents and caregivers. 


Timeline & Learn More

So what is the timeline for applying these funds? Each stimulus bill has its own ESSER “obligation” deadline. School districts must “obligate” ESSER I by Sept. 30, 2022, ESSER II by Sept. 30, 2023, and ESSER III by Sept. 30, 2024. 

Information presented in this article was shared during PresenceLearning’s “Lunch ‘n Learn: ESSER II & III” webinar. If your school is considering teletherapy and remote evaluations to help supplement support for your school team and students, get in touch today to schedule a free consultation. You will also gain access to PresenceLearning’s series of educational webinars.