On July 16, 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (“PDE”) submitted its American Rescue Plan Act (“ARP”) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (“ESSER”) Plan to the United States Department of Education (“USDE”).  ARP ESSER is sometimes referred to as “ESSER III.”  Pennsylvania’s 78-page plan can be found here:  Pennsylvania ARP ESSER State Plan.  Less than a month later, on August 5, 2021, USDE approved Pennsylvania’s ARP ESSER Plan.

That plan approved nearly $5 billion in federal funding to flow to public school districts, including charters (referred to as a Local Education Agency (“LEA”)) across the Commonwealth.[1]  If you are curious as to what was allocated for your school district, that can be found at PDE’s website.  Although there is not a specific deadline to apply for ARP ESSER funds, PDE strongly encouraged LEAs to apply by September 1, 2021.

What does our District have to complete to be eligible for the funds?

PDE requires various parameters to be met before becoming eligible to receive ARP ESSER funds.  One of the most interesting parameters is that the LEA must engage in meaningful stakeholder engagement, which includes providing the public an opportunity to submit input in the development of the LEA’s Plan.

Under ARP requirements, stakeholders include, but are not limited to:  students, families, public, school and district administrators (including special education administrators), teachers, principals, school staff, and school unions.  In addition, the LEA must engage in meaningful consultation with each of the following to the extent present in or served by the LEA:  tribes, civil rights organizations, English learners representatives, children experiencing homelessness representatives, foster care representatives, migratory students representatives, incarcerated children representatives, and other underserved students representatives.  The specific ARP ESSER application will also include the following sections for the LEA to complete:  (1) Assessing Impacts and Needs; (2) Engaging Stakeholders in Plan Development (discussed above); (3) Using ARP ESSER Funds to Plan for Safe, In-Person Instruction; (4) Proposed Budget and Timeline; (5) Monitoring and Measuring Progress, and (6) ARP ESSER Fund Assurances.

If your LEA has not yet applied, it can still do so; the online application process begins here:  PA eGrants Home Page.  If you have questions, PDE’s Division of Federal Programs staff can provide support and technical assistance to LEAs and can be contacted with the information provided on its website.

What can our District use the funds for?

LEAs cannot use ARP ESSER funds in any manner for which the LEA so desires.  Just like ESSER I and ESSER II, there are specific restrictions for which ARP ESSER funds can be used.  The restrictions include:

  1. The cost must have occurred on or after March 13, 2020 (the date the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (“COVID-19”) National Emergency was declared).
  2. At least 20% of the LEA’s funds are required to be used to address “learning loss,” which is a defined term in the statute and includes evidence-based interventions like summer learning, extended day, and comprehensive afterschool programs.
  3. The remaining 80% or so can be used in certain areas and/or activities, which include: (a) budgetary shortfalls and continued staff employment; (b) mechanical and non-mechanical repair, replacement, and upgrade projects to improve the indoor air quality in school facilities; (c) implementing public health protocols; and (d) educational technology.

While the regulatory authorities recognize that ARP ESSER funds may be used for capital expenditures, the USDE in published guidance has indicated it discourages such use, because such use may limit an LEA’s ability to support other essential needs or initiatives.  Additionally, all capital expenditures supported with ARP ESSER funds must be pre-approved by PDE.  Further guidance on obtaining pre-approval of capital expenditures will be forthcoming.  The USDE has articulated a three-part test that LEAs should use when determining whether the proposed use will be determined appropriate:

  1. Is the use of funds intended to prevent, prepare for, or respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its impact on the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students?
  2. Does the use of funds fall under one of the authorized uses of ESSER funds?
  3. Is the use of funds permissible under the Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (Uniform Guidance, 2 CFR Part 200)? In particular, is it necessary and reasonable for the performance of the ESSER award?

Our District’s plan was already approved by PDE.  Do we have any other obligations to meet?

If funds are received under ARP ESSER, the LEA will be required to maintain and/or develop a Health and Safety Plan[2] and prepare and submit various reports, which have not been finalized by PDE, but will include:  (a) reporting on the status of the implemented programs/interventions; (b) quarterly and final program reporting; (c) “Learning Loss” reporting; and (d) Maintenance of Equity Reporting.

In addition to practicing as an attorney in this area, I am also a school board director and deal first-hand with the various issues and questions raised above regarding ARP ESSER funding.  If you are a board director or administrator for a LEA and would like assistance as you navigate your way through the details of the ARP ESSER (or any of your LEA’s stimulus funding), please contact me today at 717-237-5340 or rgonder@mcneeslaw.com.

[1] PA ESSER I allocation was about $524 million; PA ESSER II allocation was about $2.2 billion.

[2] Given Federally required timelines, LEAs eligible to apply for and receive ARP ESSER funding were required to submit a Health and Safety Plan that meets ARP to PDE by Friday, July 30, 2021, regardless of when the LEA submits its actual ARP ESSER application.  LEAs must review its Health and Safety Plans at least every 6 months during the period of the LEA’s ARP ESSER grant.  LEAs must also review and update its plans whenever there are significant changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) recommendations for K-12 schools.