As school leaders welcomed students back to the classroom for the 2021-22 school year, they began to determine how to spend the more than $190 billion in federal COVID relief dollars for K-12 including the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund. (Find out how much your state is getting here.)
Today, school leaders are probing how they can spend money to support the unique needs of at-risk and low-income students, students with disabilities, English language learners, racial and ethnic minorities, and systems-involved youth.
At Brooklyn Laboratory High School (Brooklyn LAB)—an XQ school located in Brooklyn, New York—we serve all learners and prioritize those who are historically underserved in our school system, especially students with disabilities. At Brooklyn LAB, we’ve learned that when schools prioritize the students most at the margins they can create an equitable school community.
Federal COVID-19 relief funds offer a historic moment for America to create schools that work for all. Schools have the potential to transform education—during the pandemic and beyond—if educators and school leaders continue to place historically disadvantaged students at the core.
How Schools Can Support the Needs of Students with Disabilities
Many school leaders see COVID-19 federal relief funds as an opportunity to build equity into their education budgets. This process is an acknowledgement that our school system wasn’t perfect before COVID-19: It too often marginalized students with disabilities, students of color, and students economically disadvantaged.
The need to create a more equitable system is even more present in the wake of COVID-19 and remote learning. The pandemic exacerbated social-emotional and academic learning gaps for students with disabilities. In fact, parents of children with individualized education programs (IEPs) were more than twice as likely to say their child was doing little to no remote learning, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Brooklyn LAB has always worked to reimagine a broken education system—rethinking an entrenched and inequitable system is at the core of our work. At Brooklyn LAB, complex learners make up 30 percent of the student body. Our school never had the option to overlook these students. Our experience working to help and prioritize students worst positioned to succeed gives us unique expertise in guiding the use of COVID-19 federal relief dollars.
At Brooklyn LAB, the principles of human-centered design guide our approach to education. We often collaborate with partners and invite our community to share their needs and experience. To inform our approach—and gather insights for this article—we reached out to our colleagues at Educating All Learners Alliance (EALA) and other partners to capture how they think we can continue to work to center students with disabilities with our use of these federal dollars.
Three Ways Federal Covid Relief Dollars Can Help Students With Disabilities
1. It’s time to invest in learning—for teachers.
Historically, we ask children with disabilities to adapt due to inadequate support and resources at our schools. One of the best ways to change our approach is by building the capacity of our teachers to meet the needs of children with disabilities better.
“Funds should develop the teacher capacity for accelerating learning, personalization, and differentiated instruction,” said Monica Martinez, director of strategic initiatives of the Learning Policy Institute. This includes embracing the evidence-based pillars for community schools. In a recent article on how to prioritize diverse learners, the Diverse Learners Cooperative also emphasized the need to target the best diverse learner-focused training and organizational capacity.
Lauren Rhim, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Learner Equity, outlined how prioritizing teacher capacity with COVID-19 federal relief could address short-term gaps in the learning continuity for students by training general education teachers to differentiate instruction within inclusive classrooms. To lay the foundation for long-term change, schools can also use the funding to support new approaches that address the backlog of special education referrals and provide specialized therapies that students missed out on due to school shutdowns.
2. Partnerships are paramount.
The pandemic revealed that community is an essential support system. As we look to build equity into education, we should identify partners who share goals of equality and who have the expertise we may lack within our schools.
For instance, schools, districts, and community organizations can partner to offer extracurricular activities and summer programs for students. These could help students receive mentorship, express themselves creatively, and reconnect after a traumatic and isolating year.
Lisa Thomas, associate director in educational issues with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), suggested partnering with local community colleges who are training paraprofessionals. These students need professional development experience, and local schools could use their skills to work closely with students with disabilities and other high-need students. The federal relief funds are an opportunity to strengthen those connections.
“Those types of partnerships and collaborations are absolutely essential to helping bridge that gap between higher education and all of the credentialing processes” that allow community educators to gain access to the teaching profession, Thomas said.
3. Every Dollar Matters.
It’s not enough to spend more. School leaders need to spend smarter by taking a holistic, integrated approach to the budgeting process and planning for long-term sustainability of the funds. Resources like KnowledgeWorks’ common sense guide to using federal education funds provide practical ideas and examples of district funding to promote more equitable learning environments.
Additionally, Tamara Mitchell reflected on equity in school districts for ASBO’s School Business Affairs magazine. She explained that data-driven budgetary decisions as well as collaboration with education and community stakeholders and partnerships with marginalized populations can address equity issues in schools.
Investing in lasting change
By spending smarter and investing in teachers, the COVID-19 federal relief funds give us an opportunity to embrace longer-term thinking—to transform education with equity at the core. These funds are required to be spent within three years, but, used wisely, the windfall can help change the education system permanently.
To invest in lasting change, we want to prioritize the students least set up to succeed. By creating an education system that works for the students most at the margin, we create an education system that will better support all learners. Lindsay Jones, CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, recommends that schools focus on three key levers: high-quality, accessible, and inclusive academic instruction; effective progress-monitoring and accurate evaluations for specialized instruction; and meaningful family support and engagement. This will help ensure that approaches are high-quality and accessible to every student.
After 18 months dominated by COVID-19, schools have a chance to consider where they want to be in three or four years. As David Rosenberg, partner at Education Resource Strategies mused “It can’t just be recovery and pullback, it has to be recovery, redesign, and shift.”
For more recommendations and resources for how to leverage federal COVID relief dollars to fuel transformation in service of equity, see: https://xqsuperschool.org/rethinktogether/arp-esser/