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Three Ways States Can Tap ESSA to Better Navigate the COVID-19 Crisis

The novel coronavirus has shaken the very foundation of the U.S. public education system and upended assumptions about what “schooling” means. With virtually every school in the U.S. affected, the public health crisis has created unprecedented challenges and thrust families into the position of reluctant homeschoolers.

States have emerged as a battleground for some of the thorniest questions facing the field: Do remote learning plans run afoul of federal civil rights laws? How can districts create a pathway to graduation for high school seniors? How can we measure “learning” without state assessments that can no longer take place? Recognizing the unprecedented challenges, the CARES act provides states additional flexibility to tap federal resources in new ways. 

As states set out to navigate uncharted waters, it would be easy to overlook some tools that states already have available to them to respond to the crisis. Here are three ways that states can leverage the federal resources and flexibility they already had under the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

Opportunity #1: Leverage Direct Student Services funding to support students now and in the future.

ESSA allocates up to 3 percent of state Title I funding to support “direct student services” (DSS). As detailed by Chiefs for Change, these funds could be used to support a wide range of individualized education supports to improve student outcomes in low-performing schools. 

This is help that is sorely needed as students move to receiving more instruction online. DSS can support access to online courses, credit recovery programs, and tutoring where the provider is a district, institution of higher education, or a private entity. States and districts could use the online course option to give low-income families access to high-quality remote learning options to families now, over the summer, or in the fall, should future school closures be required. 

Other DSS options, such as tutoring, could be critical to addressing remediation gaps when students return to school. The Springfield Empowerment Zone in Massachusetts and the Houston Independent School District in Texas have shown how to provide high-dose tutoring in district contexts, using existing teachers who receive additional compensation for delivering instruction during vacation breaks. 

Few states have tapped these resources to implement a direct student services plan. 

Opportunity #2: Redeploy assessment and accountability toward addressing student learning needs.

States will get a reprieve from administering assessments and accountability systems this year. But this means that local districts will enter the next school year with little information to guide stopgap efforts to address the needs of students who will not have attended school for six months. 

States should consider redeploying resources that would have been used for administering state assessments and accountability systems toward implementing a strategy for districts to identify and act on student learning needs in the summer of 2020. 

There’s no time to reinvent the wheel; states should focus on working with testing vendors and existing contracts and assessment systems to support diagnostic testing for every student. States might also consider assessment systems that can be administered remotely so they don’t wait until students are back in classrooms to identify learning gaps. 

Opportunity #3: Focus school improvement resources on supporting high need schools and districts.

ESSA required states to set aside 7 percent of Title I funds to support school improvement, which must be used to support schools identified for improvement. States should use these funds to support COVID-related needs in the 2020-21 school year, when districts serving disadvantaged students will face the monumental challenge of addressing student learning needs. 

States should start building out the resources that can support schools and districts now. This should include building out a comprehensive list of evidence-based strategies for remediating gaps in learning that districts can tap. While today’s school closures are unprecedented, we know a lot about learning loss that occurs over summer and as a result of student mobility. And we know how high-performing schools aim to address gaps in learning that put students behind their peers. It is essential that states shine a light on the evidence base and encourage districts to establish effective strategies. 

There are no magic bullets that can solve the challenges facing families or educators. But states can and should use the flexibilities and resources they already possess to respond to COVID-19. 

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