HELENA — The federal government has set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for Montana school districts, to help address the impacts COVID has had on students. Now, state education leaders are encouraging districts to get creative with how they use the money.
Congress approved three separate rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funding – totaling $189.5 billion nationwide and about $600 million for Montana. On Tuesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen organized a panel discussion at the Montana State Capitol, showcasing what districts around the state have done with their share of the funding.
“Today's event was trying to promote the fact that the ESSER funds are very flexible, and demonstrating that different districts are, in fact, using those funds very differently,” said Wendi Fawns, of the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Fawns is OPI’s director for ESSER and the related program EANS, which supports non-public schools. She and her team have worked with districts to find ways to use the funding to address local needs while meeting the requirements of the federal programs.
The biggest pot of ESSER money came from the American Rescue Plan Act – $382 million. Districts have until September 2024 to use that money. So far, they’ve spent just over $84 million – about 22%.
Fawns said much of the first round of ESSER funding went toward technology and health and safety precautions. Since then, she said districts have frequently invested in professional development and academic areas like literacy and math, as well as tying academics with social and emotional learning.
“I think that's really what the story is, is how do we use these funds in a way to do everything that we always just described about trying to keep schools open?” said Stephen Schreibeis, superintendent of Glendive Public Schools. “How do we recover, and then how do we invest in that academic recovery?”
Schreibeis was one of several administrators who spoke during Tuesday’s discussion. Most said they’d used some of their ESSER money for the same types of purposes, but they also shared more distinctive ideas they’ve pursued.
Target Range School District, near Missoula, used some of the money for an enhanced playground that can also be used as an outdoor learning space, especially for social and emotional development. Eureka Public Schools got support equipment for a new class on “tiny home” construction, aimed at reaching students who were struggling during and after the pandemic. The Fergus County superintendent of schools said, in the rural schools she oversees, it was a challenge to fully clean and sanitize carpet when health concerns arose, so they used ESSER money to install new laminate flooring.
In Glendive, Schreibeis said they used some ESSER funds to put in a temporary water system at one of their schools after it was found to have a water quality issue. He said that allowed them to stay in the building instead of returning to remote learning – which he said would have made it harder to address ongoing learning loss since the pandemic.
“There are districts who know very clearly what they want to spend the funds on, and then some event will occur that changes all that,” said Fawns. “So the discussion then is, ‘Can we change the use of funds and what do we do going forward?’”
Fawns said one of OPI’s goals is to encourage districts to develop partnerships with organizations in their community, so they can make ESSER dollars go farther.
“When ESSER funds can be used to help build capacity between, say, a Rotary Club or a 4-H agent, with a local school district, that makes the programming effort much more sustainable, because you have multiple sources of funding coming in,” she said.