Sept. 26, 2021 | by Alex Mays, Senior National Program Director
Schools have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. While we have a long way to go in overcoming all that was lost in the past year and a half, schools are also in a unique position of having access to federal relief aid that can be used to make schools healthier places for this academic year, and well into the future.
This influx of federal aid represents a historic opportunity to create safer, healthier schools in communities across the nation. Spent wisely, this money can not only help students recover from the pandemic’s disruption but also fix some of the systemic health challenges that have kept students from succeeding in the past.
The funding, which amounts to more than $190 billion, is available now for state agencies and school districts to access. All three of the relief packages approved since March 2020 specifically mention safe and healthy school environments, student mental health, and reengaging students and families as top priorities. These stimulus bills offer school districts and states wide latitude in supporting student health and equity concerns.
Yet it can still be difficult to determine what specifically to spend this money on. That’s why Healthy Schools Campaign has published two new guidance documents that highlight how state education agencies and school districts can use COVID-relief funding to align spending with key health priorities.
Each document includes specific examples of how to spend relief money to promote health initiatives:
“RESTART & RECOVERY: Leveraging Federal COVID Relief Funding & Medicaid to Support Student & Staff Wellbeing & Connection”: This resource highlights how state education agencies can use COVID relief funding to support student and staff mental health, wellbeing and connection. HSC developed this in partnership with the Council for Chief State School Officers and National Center for School Mental Health.
“Advancing Student and Staff Health with COVID Relief Funding”: This guidance highlights how school districts can use COVID relief funding to support student and staff health, including COVID prevention, mental health and wellbeing, physical health and wellbeing, social drivers of health, physical and health education, staff and teacher wellbeing, and family engagement and community involvement. HSC developed this in partnership with AASA, FutureEd and Kaiser Permanente.
These COVID-relief resources align with two main priorities: ensuring healthy and safe learning environments and recovering from the academic and social-emotional effects of the pandemic.
The first priority for relief funding is to ensure that buildings are safe and healthy environments where students can learn and educators can teach. This is particularly important with COVID-19 cases surging again and many families worried about sending their unvaccinated children back to in-person classrooms. To help keep them safe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has renewed its recommendations for wearing masks inside schools and recommends that schools and districts continue to provide the protective equipment, physical space and contact-tracing needed to contain the spread of the virus.
The second priority concerns the broader health needs of children, particularly focusing on mental health, so that students can recover from both the academic and social-emotional effects of the pandemic. Research and experience tell us that healthy students are better learners. They attend school more regularly, focus better in class and develop strong relationships with peers and teachers.
Equity should drive this work: Schools, districts and local health officials should recognize the disproportionate harm that the coronavirus crisis has done to disadvantaged students and their families.