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Schools that focus funding on modernizing the staffing model create sustainable structures that can last beyond ESSER

Schools, at halftime, need to put funding into play for the second half of the year


Schools that focus funding on modernizing the staffing model create sustainable structures that can last beyond ESSER

As we enter into another winter season living with the pandemic, special education services are not where schools hoped they would be, with many feeling that they are still falling behind rather than beginning to catch up.

New York City recently announced delays to its academic recovery program for students with special needs. New York, like many others, is stretching limits to get programs activated, even allowing for educators not specifically trained in special education to staff programs. In addition to the urgency they are feeling every day to serve parents and children, there’s another good reason to expand programs right now: funding.

It was good news when states and districts received $190 billion in federal aid from three relief packages in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. But it’s a jaw-dropping amount of money, with limits on when and how to use it for special education. For once, the challenge on the ground for schools is not how to manage a tight budget. It’s how to manage the rush of money that’s available: when to get it, how best to use it, and how to be accountable for it.

If used well (and before the clock runs out), it could be a game changer for schools.

Identify the highest needs.

More than ever, directors of special education and counseling are taking stock of their challenges at this point in the year and are seeking advice on how best to use their funding to address them. 

“It’s time to determine your highest priority needs,” advised Mike Lowers, former executive director of Central Kansas Cooperative in Education. “What are the ones that are keeping you up at night?”

There’s no one-size-fits-all way for schools to get it right. What will delay children in recovering skills? What are the challenges that will hold back your program next year? What could potentially take you off track?

When faced with these questions, many school leaders conclude that what they need more than anything else are more people. Administrators are wisely drawing on funding to invest in staff resources, including support and retention tools, as well as supplements to full time staff. The need to serve more kids, and particularly to address backlogs and student evaluations, creates significant spikes in staffing needs. ESSER funding is available to help with that. Staff attrition is rising in the current environment. Nearly one in four educators said they were likely to leave their jobs, compared with one in six who said the same, on average, before the pandemic, according to a report by the RAND Corporation from March 2021.

Seek funding now.

Does your school have untapped ESSER funds? You’re not alone. You may also fear you’re not maximizing funding as you could be. And that’s stressful, because there’s typically a “use it or lose it” clause attached to the money.

ESSER funds are one-time funds that must be used to prepare for and respond to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Districts, therefore, are juggling multiple priorities over several time horizons, none of which are limitless. American Rescue Plan funding needs to be obligated by September 2023. This leaves schools weighing their need to hire new staff members or implement new programs against a fear of needing to eliminate the additional resources due to a lack of ongoing funds in the future.

Leaning into innovation is key.

“The pandemic exposed a need to provide more thoughtful services to students with disabilities,” said David DeSchryver, senior vice-president and co-director of research at Whiteboard Advisors. “It created awareness about the benefits of flexible solutions.”

Modernizing services serves children.

Now that we’ve made it through the back-to-school season and schools are running at full pace, it’s a good time to focus on investments that help set up the special education department for the longer term. Teletherapy is one element of a long term plan for flexing coverage in times of need. Recently, in fact, the Surgeon General recommended increasing access to behavioral and mental health care for children through telehealth and an expanded school-based mental health workforce.

Teletherapy can provide a transformative solution for your staffing needs and help install that expanded school-based workforce. Many districts have been using this approach for years for assessments and speech therapy, occupational therapy, and mental health therapy.

“Providers may even want to bring small groups together through teletherapy because peer interaction can help with success at times,” said Phyllis Wolfram, executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE). “Teletherapy provides each therapist the opportunity to offer this service to our students, and also cuts down on travel costs.”

More and more therapists are looking for flexible work opportunities. Schools that focus funding on modernizing the staffing model create sustainable structures that can last beyond ESSER and beyond the pandemic. Access to more therapists means more children can receive the services they depend upon.

And ultimately, that is the best outcome of any dollar that goes into special education and counseling this year.

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Kate Eberle Walker

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