COVID Funding for K-12 Education

Posted by Clare Agostinelli on February 09, 2021

To date the federal government has designated funding for COVID-19-related expenses through two major federal bills intended to provide relief to all U.S. states and territories: the CARES Act and HR133/ESSER. A substantial portion of each type of funding is available to education, both K-12 and higher education, through the state, territory, tribal, and in some cases individual city government. Most school districts are eligible for this funding, some of which can be used for programs like STEMscopes.

In addition to these special relief spending bills, normal federal appropriations to the U.S. Department of Education through ESSA are also available to elementary and secondary education. This article provides a brief overview of each funding source, including what the funds can be used for and the dates funding is available.


The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package passed in March 2020 that included a spectrum of relief measures related to the pandemic and its economic impact. CARES funding could be directed toward healthcare, small business relief, education, technology and broadband, unemployment and workforce development, and housing assistance, among other areas.

The Coronavirus Relief Fund

Of the $2.2 trillion total, $150 billion of direct funding was distributed to state, local, territorial and tribal governments via the Coronavirus Relief Fund. Allocations varied by state or territory, based on population; estimates by state or territory can be found here. The portion designated specifically for K-12 education, which was distributed to state education agencies, was $13.2 billion, and is referred to as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER.

The Coronavirus Relief Fund had three major requirements:

  • Spending must directly relate to COVID-19.
  • Funding was not already accounted for in the federal budget approved before March 27.
  • Expenses were incurred in 2020 (March 1–Dec. 30). Any unused funds went back to the federal government on December 30, 2020. However, tangible items could be purchased and delivered in 2020 for use in 2021. ESSER funding in particular was available through September 30, 2022. 

The bill specifies that 90 percent of the ESSER funding must go to local educational agencies – that is, directly to the districts, which had to apply for them individually. Specific allocations by state and by local versus state-level educational agencies are based on the state’s Title I, Part A allocation in 2019.

 GEER Funding for Education

The CARES Act also designated funding for the Governors’ Emergency Education Relief fund (GEER), which provided $3 billion to governors specifically for emergency education needs. GEER funding could be directed to K-12 or higher education or both.

The majority of this funding was approved and spent: the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the National Governors Association tracked GEER spending by state and estimate that by the end of 2020, 93.3 percent of the funding was obligated.

What CARES Covers

CARES funding for K-12 education could be used to offset COVID-related expenses

  • to facilitate distance learning, including technological improvements, in connection with school closings that enabled compliance with COVID-19 precautions or
  • to ensure that in-person learning was safe, for example, through purchase of personal protective equipment, furniture to ensure social distancing, or employment of new staff to ensure safety, or
  • a combination of both.

Treasury specified that districts could spend up to $500 per student without documenting what the funds were used for. Elementary and secondary schools that received that amount per student could use additional funds to cover the costs of

  • expanding broadband capacity
  • hiring new teachers
  • developing an online curriculum
  • acquiring computers and similar digital devices
  • acquiring and installing additional ventilation or other air filtering equipment
  • incurring additional transportation costs
  • incurring additional costs of providing meals

HR133: The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021

At $2.3 trillion, HR133 is the largest—and lengthiest—bill ever enacted in the United States. Passing on December 21, 2020 for the 2021 fiscal year, it combines $900 billion in COVID-19 relief and stimulus spending with $1.4 trillion in annual budget appropriations, combining what is typically 12 separate appropriations bills into one massive piece of legislation. HR133 also ensures that there will be no government shutdown in 2021 due to the lack of a federal budget.

State educational agencies have applied for ESSER II funding by January 1, 2021, and funds may be spent through September 2023.


Closely mirroring the structure of 2020’s CARES Act, HR133 allocates three major provisions related to education:

  • $4 billion for the Governor's Relief Fund
  • $22 billion for higher education
  • $54 billion for public K-12 schools (ESSER II)

Like the CARES Act, the bill specifies that 90 percent of the ESSER II funding must go to local educational agencies. Specific allocations by state and by local versus state-level educational agencies, again based on the state’s Title I, Part A allocations in 2020, can be found here.

What HR133 Covers

The 2021 bill covers roughly the same expenses as CARES, with two notable additions:

  • It allows purchase of educational technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity) for students that will help students communicate with their teachers and online learning.
  • It allows expenses that relate to addressing learning loss among students, including at-risk students like low-income students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and children and youth in foster care.

This focus on learning loss means that these funds can be used to help address any gaps that took place during this school year—particularly summer school—especially benefitting children for whom remote learning was a challenge, whether due to technology, their English proficiency, learning ability, income, family situation, or any other reason.

This in turn will place even greater emphasis on teachers’ ability to assess students’ grasp of material. Districts and individual schools will need to develop a comprehensive approach to formative assessment, ideally based on high-quality instructional materials and established assessment tools that are aligned well with those materials.

ESSA Title IV, Part A

The 2021 CARES bill, which includes the usual annual federal appropriations bills, provides $40.6 billion for K-12 education programs. According to NSTA, this represents a “modest” 1.6 percent increase over 2020: funding for most programs remained the same. These appropriations are based on the same objectives and focus as they have in previous years, without specific reference to COVID, since COVID-specific relief funding is addressed elsewhere within the CARES Act.

One of the programs funded by the Department of Education, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), was first enacted during the Obama administration in 2015. It reauthorized the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It provided greater flexibility and shifted authority for disbursing funds from the U.S. Department of Education to the individual states.

ESSA has 9 component titles; of these, Title IV, “21st Century Schools,” is perhaps the most relevant to science and math funding because of its Part A provisions. Part A replaced the Math and Science Partnership Grants that were formerly provided through No Child Left Behind. These grants authorize activities in three broad areas:

  1. Providing students with programs that ensure a well-rounded education with programs in STEM, college and career counseling, arts, civics, and access to IB/AP.
  2. Supporting safe and healthy students with comprehensive school mental health programs, drug and violence prevention initiatives, and health and physical education.
  3. Supporting the effective use of technology, including professional development, blended learning, and devices.


As with ESSER funding, states receive ESSA Title IV funding based on their Title I funding formula. Unlike ESSER funding, each state’s education agency receives the funding in a block and then distributes it to individual school districts.

Districts receiving $30,000 or more must conduct a needs assessment and adhere to spending guidelines:

  • 20 percent on safe and healthy school activities
  • 20 percent on activities to provide a well-rounded education
  • 60 percent on any of the three broad areas described above, including technology, although there is a 15 percent cap on devices, equipment, software, and digital content.

Districts receiving less than $30,000 are not required to do a needs assessment or comply with the above percentages, but they must spend money on the activities in at least one of the three broad areas of priority.

The 2021 CARES Act designates $1.2 billion for Title IV-A Grants, a small increase of $10 million above the 2020 enacted level. Individual state allocations can be found here.

What Title IV Part A Covers

Districts can use these grants in Science and STEM by:

  • Expanding high-quality STEM courses
  • Increasing access to STEM for underserved and at-risk student populations
  • Supporting the participation of students in STEM nonprofit competitions (such as robotics, invention, and mathematics competitions)
  • Providing hands-on STEM learning activities
  • Integrating other academic subjects, including the arts, into STEM subject programs
  • Creating or enhancing STEM specialty schools
  • Integrating classroom-based, after-school, and informal STEM instruction.

Funding-Eligible STEMscopes Products to Support Your District

Many of the products and curricula offered by STEMscopes are in full alignment with the goals and intent of these three programs and are thus eligible for funding from these federal sources. As you plan your district’s or school’s response to the many needs exacerbated by the pandemic and distance learning, you may want to consider STEM programs that engage students in the world of STEM and promote a positive and exciting learning environment.

STEMscopes Coding powered by Bitsbox will have students writing javascript apps to share with family and friends in no time. The scaffolded projects progress in complexity for learners of all ages. Students just need a device and an imagination!

STEMscopes DIVE-in Engineering engages students in an authentic approach to engineering design. Ask us how DIVE-in has supported and inspired girls and minorities  to envision themselves in STEM careers.

STEMscopes Science provides student-centered hands-on learning that encourages doing science while collaborating with peers on real-world problems. Our flexible curriculum can be delivered digitally, in-person, or a hybrid of both.

STEMscopes Math provides a new approach to math instruction. Built by teachers for teachers using the 5E lesson model, we designed STEMscopes Math to enhance your students’ learning by revealing the wonder of math in our everyday world. With benchmark assessments, virtual manipulatives, and in-depth CRA-based lessons it’s a one-stop-shop for combatting learning loss.

STEMscopes Assessment package includes benchmark assessment tools perfect for determining areas where students need remediation and support. Using data on student mastery of standards, districts can target key areas this summer and plan for the following school year.

For a deeper conversation about how funding through CARES, HR 133/ESSER, or ESSA Title IV-A covers our programs, don’t hesitate to reach out to your STEMscopes Account Manager. We’ll be glad to provide more information and walk you through the details of these massive federal programs.



Armelino, Tom. “As schools go to distance learning, key strategies to prevent learning loss .” EdSource, 7/17/2020.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “How Much Each State Will Receive From the Coronavirus Relief Funding the CARES Act.” 3/26/20.

Federal Register. Vol. 86, No. 10, 1/15/2021, p. 4182. Department of the Treasury. Coronavirus Relief Fund for States, Tribal Governments, and Certain Eligible Local Governments. Dated Friday, Jan. 11. Filed Monday, Jan. 14.

National Conference of State Legislatures. The SCSL Blog: “How Governors Have Spent CARES Education Funds.” 1/22/2021.

Peterson, Jodie. “Education Funding in the COVID Relief Bill.” National Science Teaching Association website. Posted 1/7/2021.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). “Final ESSER II Methodology Table 1.5.21.”

Federal Register. Vol. 86, No. 10 / Friday, January 15, 2021, p. 4182. Department of the Treasury. Coronavirus Relief Fund for States, Tribal Governments, and Certain Eligible Local Governments. Dated Friday, Jan. 11. Filed Monday, Jan. 14.

Reference: Armelino, Tom. “As schools go to distance learning, key strategies to prevent learning loss .” EdSource, 7/17/2020.





Topics: k12 education, cares act, k12 funding

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