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No teacher, parent or student could have predicted the pandemic and its impacts on education. After 15 months of upheaval and stress for students and educators, it’s time to examine the pandemic as an inflection point for American education.  

We’ve been granted a chance to do more for education than sustain or reject what was. We can build something new that serves and benefits every child — and not just a privileged few. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. 

President Joe Biden earmarked $122 billion in the American Rescue Plan for schools via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER. The magnitude of this investment can be compared to that of President Harry Truman’s Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. 

It’s the kind of windfall we’re not used to in education. With this influx of federal aid, the education funding debate isn’t about whether schools’ needs can be met. Rather, the multibillion-dollar questions school systems across the country must now answer are: How should this money be spent? and, crucially, Who decides where these funds go? 

School districts typically draw down federal funds through a granting process in which the state serves as a fiscal pass-through. Local leaders, school committees and other stakeholders often play a limited or nonexistent role.  

Superintendents and school district leaders can often access federal dollars with limited reporting requirements or active oversight, but ESSER isn’t a blank check, nor is it a rainy day fund for education. Congress itself has stipulated that schools must use these dollars to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to impacts of COVID-19.”  

Across the nation, those coronavirus impacts on schools have varied widely in intensity and scale — even within the same state or county — influenced not only by who attends the schools but also how Covid-19 has impacted the communities in which the students reside.  

There is widespread agreement among experts both within and outside education that specific solutions will be critical for pandemic recovery, including: high-dosage tutoring, teacher development, expanded learning time, targeted assessment and interventions and community partnerships.  

Related: The American Rescue Plan will halve child poverty, but we haven’t won the second War on Poverty yet 

The scope of the ESSER funds demands that those in education most directly impacted by the pandemic — teachers, principals, parents, students and health care providers —must be at the table when allocation decisions are being made. All too often, these stakeholders have been left out of the process. 

The scope of the ESSER funds demands that those in education most directly impacted by the pandemic — teachers, principals, parents, students and health care providers — must be at the table when allocation decisions are being made.

Teachers and principals know best what their schools and students need. As much as possible, school leaders must be given the budgetary autonomy to direct these federal funds to their classrooms and students. We must trust educators to support children’s academic, social and emotional recovery, and provide educators with the training and resources to do it well. 

Families were unexpectedly put on the front lines of their children’s educations when schools closed and remote learning began. They have seen how the disruption affected their children: from what worked and what didn’t, to the education gaps that must be addressed moving forward.  

In April, a national poll of more than 1,150 parents found that 58 percent want schools to offer both remote and in-person options in the 2021-22 school year — and allow families to choose what is best. (Not all states will have that option; here in Massachusetts, virtual options will be extremely limited.

Students also have strong opinions about their education, and they must be given space to share them. A Gallup student survey of 1,000 high school students last fall, commissioned by the Barr Foundation, found that only 27 percent felt that their schoolwork was preparing them to succeed; 36 percent of fulltime remote-learning students said they were falling behind in their learning. 

Health care providers were critical to determining the measures necessary for schools to keep students healthy during the pandemic. Even with widespread Covid-19 vaccine availability, their influence should not fade. Their input is crucial to determining how schools can use some of these federal dollars to avoid the next health crisis and to address the social-emotional issues experienced by so many students because of the pandemic. 

However the decisions about federal funding are made, transparency is crucial. The magnitude and gravity of investing billions of federal dollars require a true public hearing, and it is incumbent on school districts to create a public process to shape their visions for these funds and account for how they are spent. 

Everyone should have a say and know what will be different and improved in schools both a year from now and when federal ESSER dollars end in late 2023. 

We owe it to children, families and educators to make sure that this once-in-a-generation funding meets their needs. The pandemic has granted the education sector a rare opportunity not only to rethink systems and structures that haven’t fully served all students, but to rebuild them from the ground up with students at the center.  

With ESSER, funding exists to test bold theories and ideas for education grounded in research and best practice. The sheer size of these funds is too great to keep doing only what we know. As the pandemic has made alarmingly clear, what we know isn’t working anymore — and we must do better.  

Will Austin is the CEO and founder of Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit advancing educational equity in Boston. 

This story about the American Rescue Plan and education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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