Making sense of COVID relief funds for K-12 schools

Learn about the various emergency relief funding available to help schools alleviate the impact of the pandemic on students, parents, and school operations.

The U.S. government has enacted a series of emergency aid bills over the past year that include funding to help students, parents, and schools mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. These funds cover a variety of different uses by a range of institutions, provoking a lot of questions about who qualifies for the funds and for what they can be used. This article will focus specifically on the most recent relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which provides nearly $123 billion for K-12 schools via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (known as ESSER III).

The good news is that almost every type of K12 school is eligible for funding, and these funds can be used for a wide range of needs related to the pandemic. Funds are separated into two separate buckets, one for public K-12 schools, and a separate, smaller funding stream for private schools. Both funds have the same overall objectives and applications. This summary, based on available guidance as of the date of publication, should help you understand how to access these funds and what they can be used for.

Emergency relief funding allocated for K-12 education and operations amounts to almost $200 billion so far. Funds are first being distributed from the federal government to states, and then to local school districts and schools.


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How are funds distributed?

Funds are initially being distributed to state education agencies or departments of education, and from there to local education agencies. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds are being allocated to states in the same proportion as funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title I-A, which is speeding up distribution. No less than 90 percent of these funds must be awarded directly to local education agencies (including charter schools). Private schools have a separate funding stream, called Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools (EANS), but the uses and objectives are generally similar.

What can the funds be used for?

The usage of these funds is generally broad and flexible, with the primary objective defined as preventing, preparing for, and responding to COVID-19. For public schools, granted funds may be used for costs dating back to the pandemic declaration on March 13, 2020. Depending on the funding source, these monies are available for school obligations extending through September 30, 2023. There will also be some reporting requirements on how the grants have been spent, with money from each of the three funds tracked separately.

The most notable uses of the funds are:

Health and sanitization

Funds may be used to address the health and sanitization needs of school facilities. This includes cleaning services and supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), and staff training in proper procedures. These funds can be used for infrastructure repair and improvement in areas like air quality and maintaining social distances.


Support for pandemic-related technology projects is also an acceptable use of funds. This includes software, hardware, and connectivity for online and remote learning. It also covers the move to paperless processes, electronic signatures, and other digital transformation initiatives that help staff, parents, and students work and communicate more effectively in remote situations, when in-person interactions aren’t possible.

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When introducing innovative technologies or digitizing processes, training is often required to drive use and impact. As such, training and professional development related to online and remote learning, or the digital processes related to remote working, are also valid applications of these grants.

Student assistance

All students do not have the same access to web connectivity and technology tools they need for effective remote or online learning. Schools may use these funds to purchase hardware, software, and connectivity to help students get or improve access to online school resources.

Addressing learning loss

Many students are experiencing varying degrees of learning disruption due to the pandemic, so expenses related to addressing lost instructional time are a significant focus of the ARP funds covered. This includes summer learning options, supplemental afterschool programs, and other options that extend or enrich students’ learning opportunities and address lost instructional time.

Mental health

Social, emotional, and mental health have all been adversely impacted by the pandemic, and schools are encouraged to implement strategies and resources that help mitigate the impact and improve the wellbeing of students and staff. Training and coaching of staff, evidence-based behavioral assessments, and professional therapists are a few examples of valid expenses.


Finally, there is a significant range of flexibility and discretionary uses for these funds, including activities necessary to maintain continuity of services, avoiding layoffs, providing needed supports to staff and students, and otherwise enhancing or remediating educational experience for those most affected.

How to apply for COVID-19 school relief funds

ESSER grants are distributed by formula to school districts based on their proportional share of Title I-A funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but local educational agencies must apply to their Department of Education for a grant from these funds. While application processes are specific to each State, they typically include:

Data to help determine where the most important needs and issues are in the board or district and to provide a baseline for future reporting
Analysis and commentary on the data to help guide the grantor’s decision making
Strategies for using the funds to address the identified needs
Implementation timeline and plan for assessing the impact
Signatures of authorized representatives and appropriate assurances

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To see an example, explore this application form mock-up from the North Carolina State Board of Education.

You can learn more about how our Adobe education-focused solutions can help you respond to changing educational and operational needs during and after the pandemic, here.

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