New guidance from the U.S. Department of Education provides detailed recommendations that clarify how local education agencies, and in some cases states, are allowed to use federal Covid-19 relief funds to address chronic absenteeism, lagging student engagement and learning loss for students in grades K-12.
Published on Dec. 7, the document updates earlier advice on using funds in the two programs approved during the Covid-19 pandemic: Elementary and Secondary School Emergency (ESSER) Relief Programs and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Programs.
The department notes that districts and state leaders can take data-driven strategies to address the impacts from chronic absenteeism, when students are missing 10% or more of school days. The recommendations range from outreach to students and families, investing in data collection improvements, creating partnerships with community organizations, and taking steps to address students’ social, emotional and mental health issues and lost learning opportunities.
Support Early Warning Systems
The guidance includes a new section outlining how these funds can be used to create or support early warning indicator (EWI) systems which can track metrics related to student progress, including attendance, course completion and grades. When viewed at the student or classroom level, data can strengthen a school’s ability to provide early and timely interventions. Early intervention is crucial to improving attendance and addressing the impact of lost instructional time.
Develop Tiered Supports
Recent data reported by several states show that chronic absence doubled in the 2020-21 school year. Utilizing a tiered approach and implementing evidence based practices is a sure path towards improving student attendance and engagement. A first step in a tiered approach is to shore up the foundational supports in schools to improve the conditions for learning. When large numbers of students are chronically absent, focusing interventions on one or two groups of students that are facing similar challenges can help educators to build towards success.
The department notes that ESSER and GEER funds may be used to support a variety of programs that address high levels of absenteeism. Funds can be used to locate and reengage students who are chronically absent and to work with students and families to address underlying needs or barriers. This can be accomplished by extending personal outreach to families, providing materials in home languages at community sites and online, and matching students with mentors. While the funds can be used to compensate teachers time spend time outside their regular working hours to locate and reengage students who are chronically absent, it draws a line at compensating students or families for school attendance.
The department notes that funded interventions can take place during school, at extended day programs, and during holiday breaks. Districts are allowed to invest in tiered practices such as:
- Strengthening foundational strategies that support the entire school community and foster welcoming learning environments;
- Establishing predictable routines and clear communication;
- Initiatives that support students at risk of chronic absenteeism, such as individualized outreach and support or home visits; and
- Case management and related supports for students who have missed the most instruction.
Invest in Professional Development
The document offers updated guidance on how the funds can be used to support mental health services for students and educators facing COVID-19 pandemic-related trauma, including equipping staff with professional development to implement and integrate evidence-based practices into their Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS). This approach can help create a positive safe and welcoming school environment, build strong relationships between students and staff and establish consistent routines. The document explicitly mentions using the funds to expand and improve educator and staff well-being in a number of ways, such as debrief sessions and peer-to-peer support. This approach can help districts create communities of practice to develop and support effective attendance programs.
The funds can be invested in developing and implementing fair discipline policies that emphasize preventive practices and strategies that help address social, emotional, and mental health needs, such as restorative justice programs that support the social and emotional well-being of all students.
The document also emphasizes districts can also apply the funds to expand full-service community schools, which provide and better integrate academic, social, and health care services for students and students’ family members.
Build Data Systems and Dashboards
To guide district decision-making around which strategies to implement, ESSER and GEER funds may be used to develop data quality systems that will assist in:
- Establishing a common definition of what constitutes a day of attendance across all modes of instruction, including in-person, remote, virtual synchronous, and asynchronous;
- Tracking daily attendance and determining whether absences occur during in-person, or, if used, remote learning (whether synchronous or asynchronous) settings;
- Creating state- or district-level data dashboards that provide public reporting when the reporting is related to the Covid pandemic (e.g., dashboards that specifically address lost instructional time), with data disaggregated to the greatest extent possible by race/ethnicity, economic status, English learner status, disability status, homelessness status, and other factors.
Noting that “it is important that parents, educators, and the public have accurate and meaningful information about how students are learning … and what learning opportunities are available,” the guidance lists factors that can be included on the dashboards, such as:
- Student attendance rates by school and by instructional modality;
- Chronic absenteeism rates by school and by instructional modality;
- Rate of student participation logging into remote learning for students in fully remote or hybrid learning environments by school;
- School instructional offerings by modality (e.g., open full-time in-person for all students, remote option available for all students); and
- Other opportunity-to-learn indicators such as discipline rates, access to advanced coursework, teacher turnover and access to counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses.
Leverage Extended Funding When Needed
The department “strongly encourages” states and districts to operate with “urgency” to take steps to invest the ESSER and GEER funds on activities that will support students’ academic recovery and mental health needs. Earlier this year, the department allowed districts extra time to spend the funds in the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This money had to be committed to a contract by September 2022, but districts can continue using it for at least 18 months. If necessary, the department noted that it may allow the funding to extend into a longer contract.
The guidance notes that department is still considering whether to extend the deadlines for ESSER funds included in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) and the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
Find out more in USED’s new guidance, Frequently Asked Questions: Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Programs Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Programs.
For a broader look at Covid-19 federal relief funding, read What Congressional Funding Means for K-12 Schools from FutureEd.