Over the last two years, the landscape of K-12 education and data security in schools has changed drastically. The sudden transition to hybrid and remote learning among other unprecedented challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt considerable financial blows to schools across the nation.
This turbulence has caused Congress to react with three different stimulus plans aimed at helping schools recover and offset future costs as educational facilities adjust their IT infrastructure, data security in schools/at home, hire on extra staff, reduce in-person class sizes, and more.
Closely following the initial outbreak of the virus in March of 2020, the first of these stimulus programs designed to aid in the remote learning transition, the CARES Act, became available. Since then, two other plans: the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) and Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) have been introduced as well.
The sections in these acts that allocate funds for education use specifically are known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds I, II, and III. An additional allocation to consider is the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund. This is a program that sets aside funds dedicated to education needs at the governor’s discretion.
In this article, we’ll elaborate on each of the plans and how they can be used toward IT and security-related expenses to improve data security in schools as we continue to work toward keeping students safe on and offline.
Approved Uses and Access Requirements
Although each of the funds varies slightly in terms of what is required to access them, the money has been granted for effectively the same purpose and is flexible in how it may be used.
A K-12 institution may use the funds to cover any cost incurred because of the COVID-19 pandemic or to reopen a school or related program safely. Despite some of the requirements that vary, this rule of thumb is helpful to keep in mind, and it’s worth noting that all three funds are permitted to be invested toward IT and security infrastructure.
Stimulus money is distributed to each state via program channels from the US Department of Education (DOE) at which point it is allocated to Local Education Agencies (LEA) and eventually to individual schools based on approved applications.
The application process for each fund varies by state, and some states will require reporting as well. For more specific information on the requirements in your area, you will need to utilize your state DOE resources to determine what they require to access these funds.
Using ESSER Funds to Improve Data Security in Schools
As a result of the work we’ve done alongside our K-12 clients during the pandemic, we recommend allocating some of the available money toward bolstering IT infrastructure and security practices. In a new remote and hybrid learning landscape where threats are introduced every day, this is more important than ever. It’s also important to understand the recent emphasis that has been placed on reopening schools and hybrid learning capabilities.
Here are some direct quotes regarding reopening and hybrid learning from an FAQ released by the US Department of Education in May of 2021:
“The Department encourages States and LEAs to use the funds described in this document to safely reopen schools, maximize in-person instructional time for all students, and provide opportunities to address the impacts of lost instructional time resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The DOE also touched on the use of funds toward improving cybersecurity for schools and the future of hybrid learning even as the push for in-person classes continues.
“If a school, LEA, or State is improving cybersecurity to better meet educational and other needs of students related to preventing, preparing for, or responding to COVID-19, it may use ESSER or GEER funds. For example, if an LEA needs to increase its use of technology, such as for potential temporary shifts to hybrid learning if COVID-19 cases arise, expanded cybersecurity needs to facilitate that activity may also be addressed using ESSER or GEER funds.”
A Quick Explainer on GEER & ESSER Funding
As we mentioned previously, money from all three of the stimulus plans comes in two forms, GEER and ESSER funding. Typically, GEER funding is totally at the discretion of the governor, who may or may not have an application process to request these funds. In fewer cases, some state DOEs may have LEAs submit a single CARES Act application for both ESSER and GEER funding.
ESSER funding is simply available to all LEAs based on allocations driven by Title I funding. This includes charter schools and special act school districts and is intended to aid in recovery efforts during the pandemic.
GEER funding can be allocated by the governor to LEAs with eight or more teachers, but not including charter schools or special act school districts. These funds are flexible and can be used at the discretion of governors to provide emergency support.
At its most basic level, GEER funding is allocated to do widely similar things to ESSER funding. Some examples include reopening schools, protecting education-related jobs, supporting LEAs’ ability to continue services, and for technology infrastructure and development intended to provide high-quality remote learning opportunities.
The main difference is that GEER funding is predominantly meant to address inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, whereas ESSER funding is slightly more ambiguous.
Regardless of this variation, the US DOE has emphasized the importance of prioritizing the remediation of educational inequities caused by COVID:
“When making decisions about how to use ESSER and GEER funds, States and LEAs are encouraged to take into consideration how the funds can be used to address inequities, including focusing supports and services on students from low-income families, students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, children and youth in foster care, migratory students, children who are incarcerated, and other underserved students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”
The Three Stimulus Plans
CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act)
- First stimulus plan initiated on March 27, 2020
- $13B allocated to ESSER fund for K-12 state education agencies
- $3B allocated to GEER fund to support targeted priorities in K-12, higher education, and more
- Most of this money has been spent, and congress is adding pressure to allocate funds that have not yet been used
- The original reserve deadline was 12/13/2020, but was extended to 9/30/2022
- Funds allocated must be spent by 9/30/2023
CRRSA (Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act)
- Passed December 27, 2020
- Sometimes referred to as CARES Act 2
- Created the ESSER II fund
- $54B allocated to K-12
- $4.05B allocated to GEER II fund, to be allocated by application
- This stimulus plan includes:
- Childcare and nutrition programs
- Essential workers
- Reopening schools
- Cost of learning loss
- COVID safety concerns
- Can be used for reimbursement of costs from the beginning of the pandemic, dating back to March 13, 2020
- Not required to be used on school reopening
- A separate dedication of $7B meant for emergency hybrid/remote learning infrastructure (by separate application)
- Funds must be obligated for use by 9/30/2023
- Funds must be spent by 1/30/2024
ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act)
- Final plan (and largest) effective March 11, 2021
- $170B to K-12 and higher education
- An additional $130B to K-12 meant for school reopening (staffing for reduced class sizes, PPE, ventilation, etc.)
- Two-thirds of ESSER funding is available immediately
- Remaining funds are made available after states submit implementation plans
- Funds must be obligated for use by 9/30/2024
- Funds must be spent by 1/30/2025
Example IT and Security Expenses the Stimulus Plans Can Cover
As we’ve discussed, a new hybrid learning environment has led to a major increase in concerns regarding data security in schools—especially K-12 organizations working with young learners who are more susceptible to risks.
Example Uses of Stimulus Money Toward IT and Security Initiatives
- Expansion of remote and hybrid learning capabilities
- Remote learning cybersecurity
- Personal devices for students, software licenses, etc.
- Addressing concerns regarding cybersecurity for schools
- Internet safety for students at home as they bring school-issued devices onto their personal networks, and vice versa
- Existing on-premise devices and networks located in schools
- Updates to IT infrastructure
- Broadband initiatives
Protecting the personal information as well as the education of students is incredibly important to our K-12 partners. The reality is that hybrid and remote learning cybersecurity will remain a concern for schools well into the future, and it’s important to take the steps necessary to ensure internet safety for students now, rather than after a security event has already occurred.
Schools and districts will no doubt benefit from the stimulus packages available in more ways than just IT and security enhancements, and we’re glad that K-12 organizations have the financial assistance necessary to lessen some of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you need any further assistance in understanding the topics covered here, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re happy to help in any way we can.