When President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, it launched a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus, including $130 billion in stimulus money for schools in the pre-K through 12th grade age group. The intention of this new school stimulus money—called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund—is to help schools safely reopen within 100 days and take actions to help protect students, staff, and families from COVID-19.
How Can School Facilities Managers Use the Relief Money?
The ARP ESSER funds may be used for a wide variety of measures, such as improving ventilation in school buildings, funding Wi-Fi hotspots and devices for remote learning, reducing class sizes (for social distancing reasons), purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE), preventing layoffs, and hiring additional support staff. Specifically, the America Rescue Plan requires that 20% of the stimulus money for schools be used on programs that will help to counteract learning loss for students who missed time in school due to the pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Education announced the amount of ARP ESSER money that would go to each state soon after the bill’s passage. You can see an official breakdown, state by state, here. It will be up to the states to divide that money between districts, prioritizing the students that are in greatest need.
Next Steps and Top Priorities
A time limit has been imposed for districts and school facilities managers to spend this stimulus money for schools. The CARES Act money ($13.5B total for education) must be spent by December 30, 2021. The December Relief Act ($54.3B for education) must be spent by September 30, 2022. The ARP ESSER money ($122B) will allow you to plan your spending through September 30, 2023. This means that you’ll have some time to devote to planning and be able to dedicate funds to projects that you aren’t able to complete right away.
The Center for Green Schools has identified five priorities to keep in mind as you start your planning process. Let’s filter these through the lens of building management:
- Transparency and Equity: Positive, equitable results will require transparent decision-making and a grounding in data. Start from current information on energy use and deferred maintenance, and use them as a reference point for measurable goals.
- Connecting Air Quality with Energy and Emissions: The funding arose from a crisis related to airborne illness, which means indoor air quality (IAQ) improvements will be critical to a healthy environment. HVAC upgrades can go a long way towards increased energy efficiency and long-term savings with proper planning.
- Leveraging Every Opportunity for Cost-Effective Upgrades: Prioritize more energy-efficient and less polluting equipment as you transition from outdated systems. ENERGY STAR certifications are a good start, but it will also be to your benefit to investigate shifting away from fossil-fuel-based heating in a strategic, cost-effective manner.
- Monitoring, Training, and Communication: Funding must be devoted not only to building equipment but also to ongoing monitoring by school facilities managers to ensure that goals are being met and benefits are realized. Make sure to invest in effective training for maintenance and custodial staff as well as the establishment of a regular reporting process on facilities data. Remote monitoring software can also help you be responsive.
- Linking to Curriculum: Consider how new systems can contribute to real-world learning. A solar array and data on its performance can be a great foundation for student learning about clean energy technology, for example.
School buildings across the nation were not well-prepared to handle the unique demands of the pandemic, and patchwork solutions are less efficient and more costly in the long run. One-time relief money like the aforementioned relief funds makes a perfect fit for facilities-related investments that will endure in the long term to provide lasting savings and health benefits to your school.
Some school facilities managers will be handling resource allocation themselves, with the approval of the school board. Others may work alongside a project manager that was brought in specifically for help in using COVID relief funds, as some schools have done. Either way, this will be the biggest opportunity to make impactful improvements for years to come.