The global pandemic has taken its toll on many aspects of education — from the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) and technology to academic programming to address learning loss. It’s a daunting situation school districts across the country have faced over the last year. But federal funds distributed throughout the 2020–21 school year have been issued to offset those expenses and losses from the pandemic through COVID-19 federal stimulus relief funds.
So far, three rounds of federal funding in the form of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding have been approved by Congress. For Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), that funding totals $213.5 million.
“COVID-19 has had a profound impact on our students, staff and community,” said Andrew Strope, IPS chief of strategy and planning. “The federal stimulus funds have already played a vital role in our ability to operate during a very challenging school year. We were able to utilize support from the first round of stimulus funds received in March of 2020 to promote student and staff safety, invest in technology, and execute a remote learning model. These funds helped IPS navigate the 2020–2021 school year.”
- Round 1 (passed in March 2020), totaled $17 million.
- Round 2 (passed in December 2020), totaled $60.5 million.
- Round 3 (passed March 2021), is projected to total $136 million.
It’s a large sum of money flowing into IPS at a time when it’s needed most, but there are restrictions on how this funding can be used. The funds must be used by 2024 and therefore cannot address long-term initiatives to guarantee financial sustainability or address the district’s structural deficit.
“With a time bound federal stimulus and state funding increase, the district’s long-term financial sustainability will still require difficult decisions and tradeoffs,” said Strope. “IPS currently spends 1.5 to 2 times the amount per pupil in transportation costs than similarly situated urban school districts. The federal stimulus funds, while incredibly helpful, are a one-time influx of dollars and therefore should not be used to offset recurring expenses like transportation costs.”
IPS has developed a framework aligned to the district’s Strategic Plan 2025 that focuses on three priority areas.
The first priority focuses on an investment in student learning. In the short term, that means learning acceleration through programs like summer school and tutoring programs. In the long-term, the funding will create supports to strengthen Tier 1 or general instruction. This will provide access to grade level curriculum and to the rigorous instruction and professional development necessary for teachers to effectively implement the curriculum.
The second priority will evolve IT infrastructure for 21st-century learning. This includes moving the IPS network to a modernized infrastructure, including transitioning it to the cloud or a data center offsite to protect the district’s network from physical risk. It will also invest in staff technology needs.
The third priority focuses on the potential investment facilities and operational costs. This means additional PPE and modernized central controls over building systems, including upgrading mechanical systems at buildings not currently integrated on the district’s heating and cooling central control system. It will also allow for more efficient energy management.
“It is important that we focus on high-leverage investments and do not overwhelm schools with numerous disjointed projects and initiatives,” said Strope. “Aligning to these priorities allows us to target our efforts and investments in a way that will enhance the positive impact for our students and families both in the short and long term. The framework also allows for flexibility and responsiveness. We will continue to assess the needs of our students and staff as we begin the 2021–22 school year.”
As the district navigates this framework, it has already started engagement opportunities with the community to gather feedback and guide the specifics in spending. The district’s online ESSER tracking tool transparently tracks expenditures so the public can follow along as IPS works to aggressively combat the negative effects of COVID-19.