Stimulating Education with the CARES Act

Written by: Reagan Flowers, PhD

Most of us are well informed about the economic impact payments associated with the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security Act), and many have already received their payments. The act, which is designed to provide financial relief for American citizens, companies and institutions, also includes a large allocation for education. 

What the Education Portion Involves

The education portion of the CARES Act is extensive and detailed, but the main thing you need to know is that it provides funds for both higher education and K-12. I’ll go into a little more detail in a minute, but how these funds are used will vary greatly. We have a great opportunity to serve those who are being hardest hit by the Coronavirus and the hardships resulting from it.

Higher Education Funds

This portion of the CARES Act is known as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. Approximately $14 billion has been allocated for colleges and universities. The majority of these funds, about $12 billion, are intended to be used for financial aid. Each school gets to decide how they will distribute the funds and what the definition of need will be. The only requirement set by the government with use of these funds is that they must be used to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to Coronavirus.

Schools need to be intentional about how they distribute funds. They have the discretion to distribute the aid equally to all students. Equal distribution is not the best option, as it does not take into account the varying needs of students. Students with full scholarships or parents who pay their tuition do not have the same level of need as a student paying for their own education who has lost a job because of COVID-19.

We need to think about the future with every decision we make now. Students were already dropping out with debt, and the current situation has only made things worse. It’s a ripple effect. Without money to pay these debts, students can’t catch up  and therefore, can’t go back to finish their degrees. Without those degrees, they are not able to prepare themselves for the jobs of tomorrow.

Funds For School Districts

The portion of the CARES Act that helps elementary and high school students has two parts: the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and an Elementary Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund

The Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund provides emergency grants to local educational agencies. The state has the job of deciding who is most significantly impacted by Coronavirus when distributing these funds.

Again, how these guidelines are set will determine the success of our students going forward, and their ability to rebound from these circumstances.

There are so many options: states could look at what areas have the most cases of the virus, or could look at items like employment rates, population or available resources. Each state has unique conditions and considerations, but it’s crucial that leaders make thoughtful decisions that take a hard look both at how students are affected now, and what that will bring for the future.

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund 

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund provides a long list of the way schools may use the funds they receive. Of these, a few stood out to me as ways the funds can be used that will make sure every student has equal opportunity for future success.

Supporting Groups of Students in Need

One of the items mentioned is using funds to support activities for low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth.

These groups all faced significant challenges already. The Coronavirus magnifies and multiplies these issues. As educators, we are constantly working to make sure we are watching out for all students, and now this is more crucial than ever. We must make sure these groups are not overlooked.

In line with this, another acceptable use is providing meals and technology for the students who need them. This is critical, as school is the one place some children get a good meal in a day. Also, without the technology to move forward, we are setting up students to fall behind.

This may require setting standards for minimum technology requirements. It’s not uncommon to see neighborhoods with expensive homes whose schools provide a laptop for every student, but poorer neighborhoods do most of their teaching in more traditional ways. If the technology expectations were the same for every school, we could help put all students at the same level of advantage.

Teachers Need Additional Training and Support

Next, principals and other school leaders can use funds to address the needs of their individual schools. I believe this a great opportunity for training. I have been talking to many education leaders, and digital preparation for elementary and secondary teachers is nowhere where it needs to be right now. We do not know how long this virus will continue impacting our schools, and it may not be the last of its kind. We need to be better prepared. In addition, teachers need the flexibility to explore and develop new ways of teaching.

Emotional Support for Students

Another possibility for the funds is providing mental health services and support. For poorer students or those who may be struggling at home, they are not going to have access to counseling. Kids rely on school counselors when they can’t find solace anywhere else; there has to be a way for them to still access these resources. Setting up virtual appointments and other options will be very important in the coming months and years.

Supplemental Activities

Finally, funds can be used for summer learning and after-school programs. Of course, at C-STEM we have a strong interest in this, as these are the types of services we help provide. These resources are crucial for students whose parents are working and can’t afford summer camps or after-school programs. 

Most of these activities are now canceled, and we must find new ways to serve families. Even after return to what will be a “new normal”, we must look at how supplemental needs will change. We are currently researching how we can best do that.

As with all the measures I’ve discussed, decision makers must look at what types of students most need these supplemental activities. We must look at what could happen in their absence, and how we can fill those gaps.

What This Means for the Future

There are so many unknowns and schools must maximize resources, and make it a priority to think long term. This pandemic will have aftereffects for many years to come, and we will need to change how we deliver education as a whole. 

At C-STEM, we will provide resources for families and teachers. We will continue to evolve our programs as education and environments change. Together, we will get through this, but we must make smart, intentional decisions now and going forward.