More federal COVID-19 funds are about to flow to local school districts.
It’s part of a significant amount of federal relief coming to school districts across Wisconsin as they continue to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Locally, the Cambridge and Deerfield school districts have received some funding already and have been told to expect that to continue for several years and possibly for the amount to increase over time.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Education – ESSER — relief funds are a series of payments that collectively may amount to $2.3 billion for Wisconsin school districts in three funding rounds between 2020 and 2024.
Local school district officials say the funds will help them continue to pay for COVID-19 initiatives.
“We continue to be impacted by the COVID procedures that started well over one year ago, but are still in place,” said Deerfield Business Manager Doreen Treuden. “The cleaning, the mask-wearing, the changing of staff hours, (there is) still a lot that is not normal, even though we’ve got kids back...The things to spend it on are there.”
“The primary focus of those funds is preparedness and response to the pandemic,” said Cambridge School District business manager Mark Worthing.
This is a reimbursement program. School districts must spend the money and file a claim with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to receive the money.
The first round of funding, ESSER I, allocated $174 million to Wisconsin school districts, to be used between March 2020 and September 2022. It was distributed as part of the federal CARES Act.
The second round of funding, ESSER II, set aside $686 million for Wisconsin school districts, which can be reimbursed from March 2020 until September 2023. It was tied to the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, an education-specific federal relief act signed in December 2020.
ESSER III is the largest of the three relief funds, allocating $1.5 billion to school districts in Wisconsin to be used between March 2020 and September 2024. It is part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) adopted in March 2021.
The ESSER relief dollars, Worthing said, have to be used for specific purposes related to the pandemic. While school districts have some flexibility, Worthing said it has to be clear that the expenses came were tied to COVID-19.
Allowed uses could vary from technology and curriculum for virtual learning to protective equipment costs and cleaning, to increased staffing costs.
The third round of funding, Worthing and Treuden said, need to be used partly toward learning losses children may have experienced because of the pandemic.
Because the relief funding is available until 2024, Worthing said districts have some time to plan.
Worthing said that the Cambridge School District received about $58,000 in the first round of ESSER funding. The district has spent almost all of that, Worthing said, and is being reimbursed.
Cambridge is set to receive at least $229,000 in the second round of funding.
And in the third round, Worthing said early estimates for Cambridge are around $500,000.
Worthing said that Cambridge has used ESSER funds to purchase masks, plastic dividers for classrooms and cleaning supplies, to rent trailers to store excess furniture, and to purchase tents to move classes outdoors, hot spots, laptops, and subscriptions to video software.
Cambridge has also allocated some of its second-round funding toward HVAC and ventilation upgrades, and to adding staff positions like a school psychologist and additional special education teacher.
Worthing added that Cambridge would likely use its last round of ESSER funds to continue those new positions into future years, because of ESSER III’s longer duration.
Worthing said that school districts don’t have many details yet about the third round of funding, and have not yet started being reimbursed for the second round.
Treuden said Deerfield received $40,000 in the first round of ESSER funding in March 2020. That money has already been spent and reimbursed, Treuden said.
Those funds mainly bought personal protective equipment, masks for staff and students, disinfecting equipment, cleaning supplies and hotspots, Treuden said.
In the second ESSER round, Deerfield is guaranteed to receive $100,000, Treuden said, with the possibility of more funding opening up later. Treuden said she hasn’t yet seen early estimates for how much Deerfield might receive in ESSER III.
Treuden said no decisions have been made by the Deerfield School Board on how to spend future ESSER funds. But, she said it’s possible some could be put toward food service, a department that’s taken a significant financial hit during the pandemic.
Those decisions will be made as part of the budget process in the next couple years.
About 175 school districts in Wisconsin could receive more funding than initially promised in the second ESSER round, Treuden and Worthing said, because of a change in the distribution of these funds.
The state’s joint committee on finance voted in January 2021 to base some of the ESSER II allocations on how much in-person instruction school districts were offering.
Worthing and Treuden both said that their districts will have to submit a report at the end of the school year, detailing when students were learning virtually and in-person. Based on that report, Cambridge and Deerfield could receive more funding in the second round than they initially anticipated.