How Washington Schools Are Using Their Emergency Relief Funding

Four school children sit in a row.

If there’s one thing that rings true about emergency relief funding, it’s that it has proven essential to Washington schools’ strategies for supporting students, families, and educators through the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, first established by Congress in March 2020, is intended to support state and local education agencies in responding to the impacts of the pandemic. Congress earmarked a total of more than $2.5 trillion for the ESSER fund over the course of three funding rounds; Washington was awarded a total of $2.6 billion.

ESSER funding can be used for a variety of purposes, including, but not limited to, summer learning and afterschool learning programs, purchasing educational technology, sanitation training and purchasing sanitation supplies, and providing meals to students. The three rounds of ESSER funding have different deadlines for when funds must be spent, and school districts are spending the funds on time for all dollars to be used up by the final deadline in September 2024.

Below, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) details how four school districts across Washington have been using their ESSER funding.

Eastern and Central Washington

Pasco School District

  • Location: Pasco and unincorporated Franklin County
  • 2021–22 enrollment: 18,749 students
  • ESSER funds awarded: $57.2 million

In the early days of the pandemic, the Pasco School District focused on meeting the most basic needs of its students and families first. Superintendent Michelle Whitney said ESSER funds first went toward making sure students and families had food and internet access.

Once those basic needs — including maintaining staff levels — were covered, the school district shifted its focus to students’ mental health needs and academics. Pasco started a partnership with Hazel Health to provide free mental health services to students; after launching in April, nearly 400 students sought services in the span of just six weeks.

Assistant Superintendent Mira Gobel said approximately 80% of students participated in counseling virtually from their homes. It’s good for parents and families to be exposed to counseling, she added.

“We want to normalize that mental health is a thing, [that] it’s okay to get help,” Gobel said.

To address students’ academic needs, the school district ramped up its virtual learning offerings. Pasco’s Digital Learning Academy has four options for virtual learning, with varying amounts of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. With the support of ESSER funding, the school district was able to purchase a building to house the growing learning academy.

“They’ll have the technology for teachers to have their meetings and classrooms virtually and spaces for students to come in when they need it,” said Kevin Hebdon, Executive Director of Fiscal Services.

Whitney said that none of these innovations would have been possible without ESSER funding.

“We would’ve been piecemealing together [virtual learning] out of a room somewhere, where now we’ll have the infrastructure to support that as a legitimate program, ongoing,” Whitney said. “There are now families that that’s their new normal. They thrive in that environment and they’re going to want to continue that. We’re here to serve and support our families where they are with what they need from us. If that’s what they’re telling us they need from us in the long term, then we want to have equity in the way we’re delivering that program.”

Newport School District

  • Location: Approximately 42 miles north of Spokane
  • 2021–22 enrollment: 1,010 students
  • ESSER funds awarded: $4.4 million

Superintendent David Smith said his school district was impacted by the pandemic in three big ways.

First, Smith said many students “just dropped off the radar and we haven’t been able to bring them back.” In response, the Newport School District used ESSER funds to hire a Student Engagement Coordinator whose “sole responsibility is to get kids back in school,” Smith added.

Second, because his school district is in a rural area, Smith said many students lacked access to the internet. That lack of access led to students struggling with academics. Along with providing WiFi hotspots, the district has also used ESSER funding for afterschool programs and summer school.

Third, student behavior became a concern as schools reopened, Smith said. After losing six substitute teachers during the pandemic, the school district was able to hire three full-time substitutes using ESSER dollars. Adding teaching staff helped reduce class sizes, meaning that students get the support and interventions they need.

“We were just at a point where teachers felt like they couldn’t be sick, they couldn’t attend to those things that they had to personally, because they could never be away from school,” Smith said. “Being able to bring in those extra people felt like, ‘Okay, we can be sick, we can attend to our families.’ That’s helped relieve some pressure as well.”

Western Washington

Evergreen Public Schools

  • Location: Vancouver
  • 2021–22 enrollment: 22,924 students
  • ESSER funds awarded: $63.8 million

At Evergreen Public Schools, administrators wanted their ESSER spending to reflect their values. That’s why the school district created an equity department that has been diving into equitable grading practices and culturally responsive teaching.

Klarissa Hightower, Executive Director of Equity and Inclusion, said the interest in equitable grading was motivated by downward trends in students’ grades during the pandemic. Instead of going about business as usual, teachers and administrators collaborated to implement more equitable grading practices.

Teachers can still assign “A” through “F” grades, but they can instead use standards-based grading, which uses language like “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations.” And teachers can no longer take timeliness or student behavior into account when grading.

“There’s this idea of learning partnerships, where you reimagine what the student and teacher relationship looks like,” Hightower said. “Having the student and teacher take a different role in what it is to assess learning is a part of that.”

The school district has also implemented a framework for culturally responsive teaching. During the 2021–22 school year, the focus was on cultural awareness, perspectives, and diverse learning behaviors. This year, the district is diving more deeply into the concept of learning partnerships.

“We started the year off this year with social emotional learning activities” across all grade levels, Hightower said. Once or twice a week, “there are SEL lessons that we’re doing with students to help them regulate their bodies, increase their social emotional wellbeing, and hopefully decrease some of the barriers that showed themselves as students returned to the building after having been away for a while.”

Evergreen has used the bulk of its ESSER funds for paying for certificated staff to provide critical supports to students, educational technology, and sanitation services and supplies.

Battle Ground Public Schools

  • Location: Immediately north of Vancouver
  • 2021–22 enrollment: 11,900 students
  • ESSER funds awarded: $19.3 million

Superintendent Denny Waters said Battle Ground Public Schools has two main goals that guide all its decisions: supporting students’ emotional well-being through Social Emotional Learning (SEL), and offering high-quality instruction.

The pandemic challenged both of these goals.

Like other school districts across the state, Battle Ground struggled with concerns over students’ mental health and classroom behavior, loss of substitute teachers, and impacted access to academics. With the support of ESSER funding, Waters said the district was able to hire additional school counselors and bring on a full-time therapist at one of its high schools.

ESSER funds also helped the district hire substitute teachers, pay for educational technology, and employ Graduation Success Coaches. The coaches work with school counselors to identify students who are behind on the number of credits needed to graduate, and then figure out solutions to get the students back on track.

Waters said the coaches have already contributed to an increase in graduation rates.

“It has been well received, much appreciated … on the student end, much appreciated on the family and parent end, and much appreciated on the staff end because it provides another layer where staff is feeling supported for those students who are struggling,” Waters said.

Though the district’s recovery efforts have shown success, Waters stays focused on the work that still needs to be done.

“On a consistent basis, I worry about the wellbeing of our staff, the workload, the stress, the pressure, the anxiety that goes with it,” Waters said. “It goes hand in hand with the struggles that our students and our families are feeling. We’re forever changed and we’re certainly not over with this. There’s still more work to be done.”

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The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

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Led by Supt. Chris Reykdal, OSPI is the primary agency charged with overseeing K–12 education in Washington state.