The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) announced on Aug. 12 that it had approved New Jersey’s plan for how it would use its share of the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds (ARP ESSER). With that approval came the release of the remaining $923 million of the funds, bringing to $2.7 billion the total funds that New Jersey has received for education recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it’s important to remember that this is almost certainly a one-time infusion of cash. That’s why this level of funding should supplement the state’s investment in education, not replace it. ARP ESSER funds should not be used as an opportunity to temporarily shift costs to the federal government that in the future may not be replaced at the state or local levels. Nor does the funding remove the need for the state to continue to grow its investment in public education.
There’s no question that student learning was disrupted over the course of the pandemic, but we cannot give into despair, falling into the trap of describing the disruption as “learning loss.” That phrase implies that students cannot recover from the very real missed opportunities of the past year.
As educators, we know that learning never occurs in a straight line with every student learning at the same pace or on the same schedule. Even in normal times, our fundamental task is to meet our students where they are and help them get to where they need to be.
We will not make up for more than a year of disruption by pressuring students to learn faster than they are able. But ARP ESSER can make a difference by funding the supports that educators at the local level know can work—whether that be tutoring, after- or before-school programs, summer enrichment, or any of the myriad strategies that experienced educators would recommend.
There will be staffing needs for additional programs, as well as needs for additional time and space. Such learning recovery programs should not be mistaken for accelerated learning programs. Learning recovery identifies and addresses prior learning concerns so that educators can connect students with challenging curricula that will move them forward in a safe and supportive environment.
School districts and community colleges, for example, could allocate funding from ARP-ESSER to create small-group learning recovery programs led by certified personnel who are employed by the local school district or college. As school or college employees, these educators are already well-versed in their school’s curricula and know their community’s students. They are in the best position to to accurately identify and meet their students’ needs.
Tools to assess students’ learning needs will be more efficient and cost-effective if they are locally developed and tailored to district curricula. An over-reliance on standardized testing will reduce the time, opportunities and funding available to help students get to where they need to be.
Students from all backgrounds have been through a traumatic two years. That trauma must be recognized and addressed if we expect our students to advance. This is even more true for students who come from communities that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Schools must be sensitive to the altered economic conditions that many families faced over the last two years. Food insecurity, inadequate health care, and the ability to afford school clothes and basic school supplies will affect learning. Crisis management teams, wraparound service providers, mental health professionals and educators will need to be provided the time necessary to identify and support students as they continue to cope with the fallout of several uncertain school years.
As these past two years have also taught us, our schools need significant physical upgrades. We cannot hope to see students succeed to their highest potential when they are forced to learn in unsafe, cramped, inadequate, crumbling or outdated schools. New Jersey had many unsafe, inadequate school buildings before the pandemic. The only difference now is that no one can pretend that it isn’t a major problem.
As a state, we must commit to a guarantee that every student in every public school in New Jersey gets to learn in a safe, welcoming environment that is optimized for learning. That will take a combination of ARP ESSER funding and sustained state funding over many years.
ARP ESSER funds present a generational opportunity to invest in our students’ academic, emotional and physical well-being. It’s an opportunity to be bold, to innovate and to analyze what really works. New Jersey is already first in the nation for its public schools—just imagine where we can go from here.