Must Read Blog February 16, 2023

Building K-12 Schools Back Better: From PPE to SEL

As we come up on the third “anniversary” of COVID-19, the dust from the pandemic continues to settle. The experience has been nothing short of traumatic for many communities. But it has also created an unprecedented opportunity to upgrade critical components of our K-12 school systems. This month, we took a pulse survey of school and district administrators. In this article, we share their perspective on the “cracks” COVID exposed in our schools, as well as the measures that are underway to repair them. Additionally, we can now get a better sense of which measures may prove to be most durable and become incorporated as core budget line items going forward.  

Below, we highlight a few key takeaways from our survey, but invite you to download the presentation to view the full data.

Schoolhouse Rocked

Before the pandemic, schools juggled a collection of academic and operational challenges often addressed through slow-moving policies and a doubling-down on traditional practices. When COVID hit – compounded by racial justice movements around the country – these “cracks” failed to withstand the pressure in most communities. District and school leaders have been forced to reckon with necessary, critical changes to address teacher capacity constraints; DEI efforts; social-emotional learning needs; student, teacher, and staff mental health and well-being; and virtual and hybrid learning models, among other areas. And they were suddenly – and still are – equipped with massive federal stimulus funding through three ESSER programs to do it.  

Building Schools Back Better

ESSER funding has enabled much needed investment in rebuilding our schools, literally and figuratively, for the 21st century. Administrators report that over the last three years, ESSER has become a key component of district budgets and will remain critical to achieving their priorities and addressing longer-term COVID effects on learning and operational capacity constraints. As such, we can expect spending to be in areas that support administrators’ top priorities: improving school culture, accelerating learning, and ensuring student and staff mental health and well-being. 

Early in the pandemic, spending was largely focused on investing in technologies to support remote learning, capital improvements (e.g., HVAC upgrades and air filtration), and PPE. However, in the last year, spending has shifted toward instructional materials and digital learning tools – items with longer-term, structural implications on how students will learn and schools will operate into the future. Further, these investments have created a window of opportunity for providers to capture long-awaited sales for more engaging, digital classroom tools and curriculum, as students now have the hardware to host the new software.  

ESSER spending has also gone beyond student outcome drivers to cover investments intended to better support, recruit, and retain teachers amidst large, pandemic-driven staffing shortages. After experimenting with one-time bonuses and permanent salary increases, administrators now anticipate prioritizing more durable measures like hiring additional staff (i.e., more teachers and/or paraprofessionals) and offering professional development services. With teacher retention at the top of administrators’ minds, third-party professional development providers that can facilitate coaching and evaluation and provide relevant, effective content may prove to provide great value to districts.  

Lasting Change?

As administrators begin planning for the coming school year amidst potential recessionary pressures and the pending expiration of ESSER funds, a slight majority still report feeling optimistic about their budgets. As seen below, more than 70% of administrators feel they have enough money to cover their needs and, on average, have ~30% of ESSER funding to spend in the next 18 months – equating to roughly $50 billion total.  

Heading into the next school year, administrators report being most concerned with improving school culture and providing supportive environments for students and staff. To do this, they will likely invest remaining ESSER dollars to continue accelerating students’ learning through engaging and effective curriculum solutions, especially in K-5 ELA and math, and addressing staffing shortages to better support teachers with additional professional development and face-to-face tutoring services.  

However, as administrators continue building schools back better, they will face tough decisions in choosing which COVID initiatives to continue funding without the benefit of ESSER dollars. Understanding and addressing administrator priorities will be critical for providers to go from “nice-to have” to “need-to-have.” To harness and maintain momentum, providers should lean into successful implementation and support of their products to ensure staying power. Additionally, providers need to continuously communicate how their products positively impact classroom culture by meeting teachers’ critical needs and equipping them to teach most effectively while also delighting students with quality materials.  

If you have questions or additional thoughts about this topic, you can reach us here.