USD 383 delegates ESSER III funding

Kris Long

Over the past two years, USD 383 has received over $10 million in federal grant money for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief aid in three parts — ESSER I, II and III — to prepare for, prevent, or respond to the effects of COVID-19 disease and school closures.

The district is now budgeting the third wave of grant money authorized by the American Rescue Plan, passed in February 2021 and amounting to $7.254 million. These funds must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024. 

“We’re excited about the opportunity, it is a large amount of money and we’ve got basically two academic years, 2022-23 and 2023-24, to try and spend the money,” said Director of Business Services and ESSER III Budget Steering Committee Chair Lew Faust. “So hopefully we can make a significant difference… to fill in the gaps that have happened as a result of learning loss and other disruptions with COVID.”

The past two ESSER grants — authorized by the COVID Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) in March 2020 and Coronavirus Response, Relief, and Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) in December 2020 — were used to support remote learning and sanitation efforts. Federal money completed the 1:1 student iPads program, paid for hotspots for students who didn’t have internet access, funded the summer food programs in 2020 and the continuing free lunch program, purchased PPE and hired 15 more teaching positions to lessen the workload over the past two years. 

While the first round of federal money was open for almost any use, ESSER II was required to fulfill specific allowable use categories and budgeting had to be approved by the Kansas Board of Education. ESSER III is similar to II in the specific requirements and Kansas Board of Ed approval, and is targeted at combating learning loss from online and hybrid schooling — at least 20% of these funds must go specifically to address learning loss. Current proposals have the largest pieces of funding going towards Special Education, supporting the 1:1 technology program, and directly to buildings for administrators to determine their use.

“We don’t want to sit here at the district level and try to dictate to [school buildings],” Faust said. “They’re the ones in the field, who know what the needs are of their students and staff. And so we wanted to put… at least some of it in the hands of building leaders and building teams to try and determine what their needs are and how to best meet the needs of those students who aren’t being successful.”

USD 383 surveyed Manhattan employees, parents, students and community members for input on how to use the incoming funds between early February and March 11, and received 1,245 responses. The largest category of respondents was students due to Manhattan High adding it to their Advisory lesson on March 9. 

“We were hoping to get 1000 and we got well over that — with a big help from the high school,” Faust said. “There were 523 student responses, so that was the largest group… Obviously, the student number came in right at the end and jumped it up quite a bit. But still, the kind of the trends we were seeing in the survey didn’t shift significantly.”
Survey respondents reported their top three priorities for the fund’s use were Professional Development for students social-emotional and mental well-being, staff recruitment, hiring and retention, and more staff to provide instruction and instructional support. Conversely, additional staff for technology access and understanding, additional instructional time for students and continued emphasis on student and staff safety procedures were the least popular budget allocations. The survey also asked respondents to rank their preferred programs to combat learning loss, which yielded focus programs and activities for specifically identified populations, additional staff, and additional materials and resources for teachers as the most popular options. 

“[The survey results] established priority,” Faust said.  “They don’t totally drive [the budget], but they established priorities when we saw those trends. We wanted our plan to be reflective, not 100% driven necessarily, but reflective of the input that we got from the survey.”

The district’s ESSER III Budget Steering Committee plans on submitting their budget to the Kansas Board of Education by June 1 so it can be approved for the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year.