Investing in the Future: How Districts Can Use COVID Relief Funds

A $1.8 billion dollar influx of federal funding is coming to Massachusetts schools this year. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding made available under the American Rescue Plan is a one-time infusion to schools that can be spent over the next several years. With 90 percent of the funding going directly to school districts, communities have until October 4 to submit their funding plans to the state. So what should communities do with this once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunity?  

Now more than ever, our education system is in need of transformation. Education in our state is shamefully inequitable and our system as a whole is still set up to train students to work on a factory floor. The pandemic shone a bright light on these issues, exacerbating inequities and making it impossible to ignore the needs of students as individuals. Healing from the pandemic won’t be a quick fix with an easy solution. Schools need to use this one-time funding to invest in programs and innovations that will lead to long-term benefits and tackle the longstanding challenges of our current education system.

This is a huge undertaking, and we recognize that schools are already stretched thin from addressing the pressing needs of students living and learning in a pandemic. How can districts get started? Our team came up with a list of practices that schools can invest in right now to both address the current needs of students and lay the building blocks for the modern system of education our children need.

Address trauma by investing in mental health services and supports

The impact of the past year on children’s mental health has been profound, making matters worse for our already over-burdened mental health system. Since the start of the pandemic, mental health-related emergency department visits are up 24 percent for children and 31 percent for adolescents. But accessing mental health services was also a challenge long before the pandemic and will continue to be for years to come if changes aren’t made.

Though they cannot address the full range of children’s mental health needs, schools can begin to take on this challenge by providing thoughtful and effective mental health supports. District and school staff could use ESSER funding to conduct universal mental health screenings and create a tiered system of support to address the varying needs of students. Funding can also be used for staff to form and take part in comprehensive student support teams and carry out self-assessment processes to examine schools’ strengths and needs.

Resources: Schools and districts can use tools like the School Health Assessment and Performance Evaluation System to better understand the quality of their current system. Thriving Minds offers professional development sessions around building comprehensive school mental health systems.

Ensure learning is inclusive, rigorous, and effective by purchasing high-quality, culturally responsive curriculum

Switching to higher-quality, more standards-aligned curricular materials can boost student achievement more than an extra half-year of learning time. And effective curriculum is a powerful lever for equity, helping shrink the gap between economically disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers.

After the unprecedent learning disruptions of the past year, the need for high-quality, standards-aligned materials has never been greater. Schools can use ESSER funding to assess their current curriculum, search for and review potential new materials, and purchase new curriculum.

Resources: Our guide to Accessing Grade-Level Content walks you through process of accessing, adapting, and selecting curriculum. Educators can assess and select curriculum using reports from Curriculum Ratings by Teachers (CURATE) and EdReports. This Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard can also help schools evaluate curriculum.

Assess where students are in their learning by procuring district-wide diagnostic testing services

We know that a year of disrupted learning has had an impact of students’ academic achievement. But to what degree? National data from NWEA shows that students ended the 2020-2021 school year with lower achievement compared to a typical year, with a loss of 8 to 12 percentile points in math and 3 to 5 percentile points in reading. But the impacts of the pandemic vary widely from student to student, so schools really need to understand how individual students have progressed over the past year.

Districts can use ESSER funds to implement district-wide diagnostic testing to find out where students are now and how they are progressing. Many high-quality curricula include assessments that can be rolled out this year. Schools could also use funds to invest in teacher time to create their own diagnostic assessments. For schools seeking outside support, organizations such as the Achievement Network and NWEA offer interim assessments to guide instruction, while the state provides a list of approved early literacy screening assessments.

Measuring students’ progress shouldn’t end after this year—it can be a critical tool for understanding the individual strengths and needs of each child and individualizing their support.

Resources: The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education offers a list of approved early literacy screening assessments. Achievement Network and NWEA assessments help teachers understand which students are succeeding or struggling, with what, and why.

Diversify the teaching force by training community members to become educators

Teacher diversity matters for all students, especially students of color. A black student who has one black teacher before 3rd grade is 13% more likely to enroll in college. That figure jumps to 32% for students who have two black teachers. However, while young people of color make up 43% of Massachusetts students, only 7% of teachers are people of color.

Districts can use ESSER funds to create or expand on programs to increase pathways to teaching. This could mean offering training programs to recruit members of the community, including high school students, parents, or paraprofessionals already working in schools. For example, the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge—where 62 percent of teachers are people of color—built a pipeline to teaching by offering teacher associate positions as well recruiting through its afterschool program.

Resources: A recent report from Bellwether Education Partners offers recommendations on ways to use ESSER funding to increase teacher diversity. Our case study on the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School delves into the school’s success in building a pipeline of diverse teachers.

Give all students the ability to thrive in today’s learning environments through equitable access to devices, internet connectivity, and tech support

The last year of remote learning has made students’ access to technology a necessity. But even as students return to in-person learning, we must remember that in 2021, access to technology is always a necessity. To learn and thrive today, students need access to internet and devices, as well as support in using both.

Schools can use ESSER funding to ensure that students who move into or within the district have access to a device and home internet connection. Schools can also make available videos, reference guides, and other resources on the school or district website and form teacher- and student-led tech support teams. Funding could also be used to support educators and families in using Learning Management Systems.

Resources: The Digital Equity Initiative Toolkit spotlights ways schools and districts have successfully addressed digital equity. Our action guide on Remote Learning offers strategies for addressing the digital divide.

Prioritize family engagement by using effective technology to promote two-way communication

Remote learning brought teachers into students’ homes like never before, offering new opportunities for connecting and highlighting the need for two-way communication. Active family participation helps students develop a sense of belonging, which directly impacts academic outcomes. But for family partnerships to be meaningful, the relationships between educators and families must be based in respect and trust. This starts with strong communication.

Districts can use ESSER funding to purchase effective technology that support two-way communication with families. For example, Talking Points is an app that allows for simultaneous translation of messages—i.e., if teachers send a text in English, families will receive it in their native language (and vice versa). District can also provide stipends for parent leaders to serve as trusted connectors within the community, spreading information and updates.

Resources: Our action guide on Rebuilding Community includes guidance for educators on developing meaningful family partnerships, and our new Year in the Life action guide offers strategies for communicating with caregivers. Talking Points is an app the allows for two-way translation.


Connect students to critical services by building a system for integrated student support

Out-of-school factors like housing instability, a lack of nutritious food, and inequitable healthcare keep too many students, specifically students of color and those from low-income families, from reaching their potential. Due to the pandemic, many families have been dealing with unemployment, financial instability, and health issues. Now more than ever, students need help that schools can’t provide alone.

Schools can use ESSER funds to provide students with individualized learning plans connected to a system of integrated student support that can evaluate every student’s unique strengths and needs and connect them to the right community resources. Funds can be used to send school teams to participate in the DESE-funded Systemic Student Support Academy or to seek support from an outside organization like City Connects or the Education Redesign Lab.

Resources: Applications for the Systemic Student Support Academy are open until September 20. City Connects and Education Redesign Lab offer additional support. Our action guide on Accessing Essential Services provides strategies to connect students with community resources.

Prepare students for postsecondary education by building an early college program

For students whose high school experience has been disrupted by the pandemic, the already challenging transition to college has been made even harder. In fact, the pandemic and economic crisis it created led to a significant drop in college enrollment. One very effective way to help prepare students for college is to allow them to take college courses while in high school and earn credit for both. 

Schools can use ESSER funding to implement this approach, known as Early College. Early College programs help students reduce the time and cost of getting a degree, get acquainted with expectations and cultural norms of college campuses, and identify skill gaps that can be addressed before they start paying tuition. Eighty-six percent of early college graduates who enroll in college stay for a second year, compared to 72 percent of all college students nationally.

Resources: Our Early College Blueprint is intended to help high school and college partners design and implement effective programs through research-based best practices and lessons learned from existing programs. The Department of Elementary in Secondary Education offers information on how to apply to become a state-designated Early College program.

Transform the way students learn by creating a Campus Without Walls

Even after a year of remote learning, zip codes still determine the quality of education a student receives. Despite its challenges, remote learning made us ask the question – why can’t students access courses or opportunities from outside their own schools? The answer: they can! The Campus Without Walls initiative is currently underway in Boston, allowing students to connect with teachers and students across the city on courses and opportunities that inspire and interest them.

Districts can use ESSER funding to break down the barriers of school walls and promote greater equity, access, opportunity, and liberation for all by creating a Campus Without Walls.  This initiative leverages the power of communities and technology to build a broader education ecosystem by virtually opening up classrooms and education programs to students all across the city, regardless of where they live or what school they attend.

Resources: Learn more about Campus Without Walls.


We recognize that many schools will need to use ESSER funding to invest in critical health and safety measures or essential infrastructure projects that make it possible for students to safely attend school during a pandemic and beyond. But admittedly, that is not our area of expertise. 

Instead, we hope this list can serve as a helpful tool for districts still finalizing their ESSER funding plans in collaboration with their communities. Continuing to work together with students, families, and educators to implement these and other reforms will help ensure that a one-time investment yields a shared commitment to long-term results. It is time to rethink our education system, and these actionable steps will get us started. By making investments that prioritize the wellbeing of all children, put students’ individual needs at the center of education, focus on cultural competence, and engage families, we are charting a way forward for our education system that will help our schools emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.