As We Mark CARES Act Deadline, States are Using Federal COVID Relief to Help Students Across Country

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By Carissa Moffat Miller, Chief Executive Officer, Council of Chief State School Officers

As we mark the Sept. 30 deadline for states to commit federal K-12 education relief appropriated through the CARES Act, we can see how states across the country are using the funding provided in that bill and two others to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our country’s schools and students.

Oklahoma is tackling the student mental health crisis, using more than $35 million of its funding to cover a portion of the salaries of more than 350 counselors and other school mental health professionals across the state. And states are ensuring the relief is working: North Carolina is prioritizing data collection, evaluation and research to drive evidence-based decision making in spending its relief dollars.

Federal leaders — including bipartisan members of Congress and the Trump and Biden administrations — recognized the COVID-19 pandemic’s once-in-a-century upheaval of the education system with three relief packages. Those three packages totaled about $190 billion for K-12 education, 10% of which is set aside for state departments of education, and states have used that funding efficiently and effectively to support students’ immediate needs throughout the pandemic and help them recover over the long-term.

As of mid-September, 94% of the three rounds of state-dedicated funding has been planned for, budgeted or otherwise committed, according to analysis by CCSSO. That includes 98% of the first round of funding from the CARES Act, which must be obligated by Sept. 30.

Since the federal government first allocated this aid in 2020, an incomplete picture has arisen about how quickly states are spending those funds. Most trackers, including the one run by the U.S. Department of Education, are designed to count money only when it has been removed from a bank account. In reality, many states made plans for that funding early, allocating it to contracts or sub-grants that must be paid out over months or years. The money is being used, and used well, to support students.

CCSSO’s COVID Relief Data Project found that states have allocated, for example, a collective $4.2 billion for tutoring or other accelerated learning efforts and $2.9 billion for out-of-school learning like summer and after school programs. Another $1.4 billion has been dedicated to recruit and retain teachers and other school staff. States have dedicated more than $1 billion to close the digital divide and another billion to aid student and staff mental health and well-being.

These are landmark investments in our K-12 education system, and this aid is having a real impact in classrooms across the country.

Mental health supports and accelerating learning to close gaps are two of the highest-funded priorities for states. They’re undertaking projects like the REACH program, which trained school staff in 52 Illinois districts and seven regional SEL Hubs to better recognize and respond to student trauma. In Missouri, up to 15,000 K-5 teachers will get training in evidenced-based instruction in reading to boost literacy, funded by $35 million in COVID relief.

States are also funding important out-of-school programs. After a successful trial in summer 2021 in which $8 million in federal funds helped connect more than 108,000 students to summer camp programs, Connecticut expanded its support to summer enrichment programs in 2022. Indiana’s new statewide math and English/language arts grant, Indiana Learns, is empowering qualifying families with up to $1,000 grants for tutoring to help students recover from pandemic learning disruptions.

None of this work to help recover over the long term, nor the important work to ensure students could continue to learn during school building closures, has been possible without the dedicated work of teachers, principals, district staff and families.

As we mark this first deadline for spending federal relief, we are immensely proud of the work state education leaders and others across the education system have undertaken to serve students throughout the pandemic, and we already see promising signs that students are recovering. We will continue to support states as they work to provide all students an equitable education that leaves them prepared for college, career and life.

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