How to make federal ESSER funding work for your school
By the time they graduate, students will have spent more than 15,000 hours in school. After their homes, this is the second longest amount of time they’ll be exposed to an indoor environment.¹
No matter what kind of home environment a child comes from, school should be a safe haven where they are encouraged to learn and grow. That can be a difficult goal to accomplish without efforts in place to mitigate the risks to children’s health that are endemic to the school environment, especially in older institutions. These risks include exhaust from school buses, lead in old paint, asbestos and mold in deteriorating building materials, sickness passed from person to person, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) sometimes found in plastics, adhesives, and other items produced before the 1979 PCB ban.
Read on to get a brief history of ESSER funding and find out how it can help make your school a healthier and safer environment for students, teachers, and staff.
What is ESSER funding?
ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. It was first established as part of the Education Stabilization fund in the CARES Act, passed in response to the economic fallout of COVID-19.
In her letter to state commissioners ahead of the first ESSER fund allocation, then Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, stated, “The ESSER Fund provides you, and your local educational agencies, with emergency relief funds to address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools in [State].”
The latest round of funding focuses on reopening safely and maintaining safe operations. “ARP ESSER provides a total of nearly $122 billion to states and school districts to help safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation’s students.”²
The ESSER I funds were allocated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of March 2020. The $13.2 billion was awarded to state educational agencies (SEAs) to provide local educational agencies (LEAs) with emergency relief funds to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on schools.
The second rollout of ESSER funds was included in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), signed into law on December 27, 2020. This provided an additional $54.3 billion to the SEAs — released on January 5, 2021.
Also known as the “ARP ESSER,” these funds were included in the American Rescue Plan (ARP), passed on March 11, 2021. The ARP was a $1.9 trillion package of assistance measures, $122 billion of which was provided to state and local educational agencies to “help safely reopen and sustain the same operation of schools and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Nation’s students.”³ The funds were released to the states on March 24, 2021. You can find the allocation table, here.
ESSER funds requirements
ESSER funds are available to state educational agencies (SEAs) in the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. SEAs must allocate at least 90 percent of the funds to local educational agencies based on their respective shares of funds received under title I, part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 in the most recent fiscal year. The SEA can retain the remaining 10% (or less) to address emergency needs (the SEA reserve). LEAs can apply for subgrants of funds from the SEA reserve, should they have needs above and beyond what was addressed by the initial allocation.
What can ARP ESSER/ESSER III funds be used for?
Relief funds provide schools with the opportunity to make improvements to their facilities that will help bridge the gap created by remote learning. One such use is to enhance the educational environment to provide a place for students to learn at an optimal level, which often coincides with improvements that benefit student and staff health. Regarding indoor air quality (IAQ), the U.S. Department of Education states that ESSER III or ARP education funds can be used for purposes including but not limited to:
- Inspection, testing, and maintenance of current ventilation systems and approaches
- Purchasing portable air filtration units, such as HEPA air filters
- Purchasing MERV-13 (or higher) filters for your HVAC system and ACs
- Repairing windows and/or doors so that they can open to let fresh air in
- Purchasing fans
- Servicing or upgrading HVAC systems consistent with industry standards
- Purchasing equipment to run outdoor classes
- Purchasing carbon dioxide (CO₂) monitors, air flow capture hoods, and anemometers for custodians and building personnel to assess ventilation
- Paying for increased heating/cooling costs due to increased use of heating/cooling systems
- Other spending that supports inspection, testing, maintenance, repair, replacement, and upgrade projects to improve the indoor air quality in school facilities, including mechanical and non-mechanical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, filtering, purification and other air cleaning, fans, control systems, and window and door repair.
Randolph Central School District in New York is a great example of a school using ESSER funds to improve indoor air quality. The district used federal funds to rent portable Hextio units from Ambius for each of their classrooms. When asked how such an investment would best serve the students and employees, Superintendent Kelly gave two key points.
- It will ease anxiety and provide peace of mind, allowing students and staff to focus on their work.
- It will better protect the overall health and safety of our students and staff. In years prior, we noticed accelerated absences due to allergies and other symptoms related to poor indoor air quality exposure. This investment will help us reduce the risks of airborne pathogens and will hopefully have a direct impact, decreasing the number of school days missed by students and staff.
History of poor indoor air quality in schools
Though the evidence points to a need for improvements in educational facilities to improve the health and well-being of students and faculty, structural constraints have made it difficult. The Schools for Health report from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health points to one very telling example. As a result of the 1973 energy crisis, windowless classrooms became increasingly common. New energy codes and building regulations drove the trend of removing windows from new construction. Many schools in the United States were constructed around this time or even before, so faculty and students are stuck with the realities of the past. Not to mention the mold growth, legacy pollutants, and water damage from poor plumbing.
One particularly antiquated element is causing many problems for today’s schools. A study done by the Government Accountability Office in 2020 found that 41% of school districts need an HVAC update. Many existing HVAC systems in schools are not designed to implement new recommendations for indoor air quality. Fortunately, there are mitigation strategies that can help overcome the shortcomings of old HVAC systems.
The table below from The Center for Green Schools indicates which IAQ mechanism works best for various building systems. In-room HEPA air cleaners proved to be successful across the board. As an added bonus, they yield great benefits without the, often impracticable, costs of replacing or upgrading existing HVAC systems.
How to use relief funds to ensure healthy schools
The Center for Green Schools partnered with UndauntedK12 to publish a guide to using relief funds to ensure healthy schools. In the guide, they establish five principles that schools can use to determine how to allocate funds. We’ll focus on the first two here.⁴
Investing in healthy, green schools is central to addressing equity
According to the American Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air” Report, the burden of unhealthy air does not fall on everyone equally. Because it is cheaper to build in disadvantaged communities of color than their more affluent, often predominantly white counterparts, sources of pollution such as industrial facilities, landfills, and power plants are often built in these areas. Though it makes economic sense to those who benefit from the facilities, the people in the communities are subject to greater exposure to pollutants. The report found that people of color are 3.6 times more likely than white people to live in a county with failing grades in ozone pollution, short-term particle pollution, and year-round particle pollution.⁵
These disadvantaged populations usually have less access to quality and affordable healthcare options and are often forced to go without treatment. What’s worse, people of color are more susceptible to chronic health conditions that are exacerbated by air pollution, such as asthma or heart disease.
All schools, but especially those in the aforementioned disadvantaged communities, can benefit from improvements in indoor air quality. In many cases, indoor air quality can be even worse than outdoor air quality. By investing in cleaner air, you can provide a healthy environment where students can learn and thrive — maximizing their potential.
Healthy schools advance student learning and success
“The evidence is unambiguous. The school building impacts student health, thinking, and performance.” – Schools for Health: Foundations for Student Success
Children spend a large portion of their developmental years in school. Not only are they growing physically, but also socially and neurologically. Improving indoor air quality in schools is about far more than reducing COVID-19 risk. It’s about creating an environment that fosters learning and promotes well-being.
For their Schools for Health report, the Harvard team analyzed many different studies to determine the effects of indoor air quality on students’ academic performance and overall health.⁶ One study found that students experienced a decrease in attention processes in classrooms with poor ventilation and high CO₂ levels. They likened this effect to what would happen if a student skipped breakfast. Other studies found that students in environments with poor ventilation rates and heightened CO₂ levels also experienced an inability to concentrate, increased fatigue, and poorer test performance. Similarly, studies found that classrooms with better ventilation led to better math and reading scores on standardized tests.
Clean air is within reach
An investment in your school’s indoor air quality is an investment in your students and staff, and there has never been a better time to do it. We know that school budgets can be tight, and complete HVAC overhauls are often out-of-reach. Our air purification solutions are the perfect way to supplement your existing systems and protect the people that make your school so great.
Superintendent Kelly had a few tips for schools wanting to utilize federal funds to improve their air hygiene.
“For us, this was a simple solution that provided the most bang for our buck. My advice is to do your research. Investing in air hygiene units does not have to involve a major HVAC system overhaul and with the federal funding support, it doesn’t have to break the bank. By investing in the “plug-and-play” portable air hygiene units, we were able to provide cleaner, healthier air for every person that steps foot in our building with little to no disruptions to our building and existing HVAC.”
Fill out the short form below to get started on your journey to cleaner air.
¹Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2019, February 28). School buildings and student success. C-CHANGE. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/news/school-buildings-and-student-success/
²Office of Elementary & Secondary Education, American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 Fact Sheet (ARP ESSER) (n.d.). Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://oese.ed.gov/files/2021/03/FINAL_ARP-ESSER-FACT-SHEET.pdf.
³Office of State and Grantee Relations, OESE. (2022, July 21). Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://oese.ed.gov/offices/education-stabilization-fund/elementary-secondary-school-emergency-relief-fund/
⁴The Center for Green Schools. (2021, March 26). Five Guiding Principles: How districts can use COVID relief funds to advance healthy, green schools. U.S. Green Building Council. Retrieved August 26, 2022, from https://www.usgbc.org/resources/five-guiding-principles
⁵American Lung Association. (2022). Key findings: State of the Air. State of the Air. Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://www.lung.org/research/sota/key-findings
⁶Eitland, E., Klingensmith, L., MacNaughton, P., Laurent, J. C., Spengler, J., Bernstein, A., & Allen, J. G. (2016). (rep.). Foundations for Student Success: How school buildings influence student health, thinking and performance.