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5 Tips for Using CARES Funds to Boost Tech Infrastructure

We teamed up with our friends at Securly to break down CARES Act funding and how to purchase smart in 2021. Together, we wanted to help you navigate these special funds–what are they, and how can I use them wisely–so you can enhance your school’s technology plan to keep education going strong through thick and thin.

 

CARES Act Overview

CARES Act

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was enacted on March 27, 2020. It’s a $2 trillion package of assistance measures, including $30.75 billion for an Education Stabilization Fund. As we now begin planning for 2021, districts seeking to solidify their digital infrastructure will strongly want to consider incorporating both ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) money and waivers for federal spending into their technology purchasing strategies if they haven’t already.

ESSER
  • The application process to receive ESSER funds varies from state to state. ESSER money is distributed through your State Education Agency (think Department of Education) and Title I shares
  • Districts may purchase educational technology as part of their strategies for dealing with long-term school closures
  • There are no limitations on how the money is spent as long as it is related to COVID-19 and/or school closures
  • Funds must be spent by the federal deadline of September 30, 2022, however some states have set earlier deadlines
Waivers under the CARES Act
  • Some of the greatest flexibility districts can have on technology spending for 2021 is via Title IV waivers
  • The definition of Professional Development for Title IV has been waived
  • Normally, the amount of Title IV money districts can allocate for spending is capped at 15% of total Title IV funding, however the CARES Act allows this cap to be lifted for technology purchases
  • The 15% cap can also be lifted retroactively, allowing Title IV money from previous years to be carried over into 2021 where ALL of it can be spent on technology

 

5 Tips for Using CARES Funds to Boost Tech Infrastructure

1. Assess your school’s unique needs.

School has been back in session for a few months now, and whether your students are back in-person, practicing distance learning, or working in a hybrid model, you’ve had a chance to see some areas that could use improvement. CARES act funding is a great way to fill in some of those gaps.

The CARES Act really lets you “create your own adventure” for strengthening tech infrastructure. The proper uses for CARES Act funds are intentionally not well defined. According to United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, CARES and ESSER funds are intended to help schools, “rethink the way students access education…[and] focus on investing in the technology infrastructure and professional development and training that will help all students continue to learn through some form of remote learning.”

This broad intent for CARES Act money gives you freedom to take a look at your school’s unique situation and find creative solutions that serve its specific needs.

2. Consider these common growth areas brought to light in 2020.

Although every school is unique, this year has brought to the surface some significant learning gaps and inequalities that exist in many areas. Here are some challenges many schools are having to adapt to: 

    • Social Emotional Learning (SEL). This year has been stressful, scary, and isolating for students thrown into distance learning. Supporting students’ mental health has been a priority for many schools in 2020. Whether that’s by finding great video conferencing tools to get a friendly face in front of students, or implementing software that listens for warning signs of suicidal contemplation, schools are getting creative about how they keep students mentally healthy.  
    • Connectivity for all. For distance/hybrid learning to work, every student needs three things: access to a device, connection to the internet, and a positive environment in which to learn. 2020 has laid bare major equity gaps in all of those things. Schools nationwide are fighting to bridge those gaps with affordable student devices, internet hotspots, and centralized learning hubs. 
    • Professional Development. Shifting to online learning came more easily to some teachers than others. Many–if not most–teachers were unprepared to become virtual educators and faced huge challenges with operating technology, learning new software, and adapting curriculums to online learning. One great use for CARES Act funds is providing training and development to help get teachers up to speed with modern tech. 
3. Get exciting new initiatives off the ground.

You know your school better than any one, and you’ve probably had ideas cooking for years about new and exciting technologies to introduce to your classrooms. Normally, you work under a tightly controlled budget for the year, but with CARES funds coming in, this can be a great time to make your case for investing in something new!

4. “Future proof” your edech investments.

Spending CARES funds wisely doesn’t only have to involve slapping a bandage on current educational challenges. It can also be about strengthening your edtech infrastructure to support education this year, next year, and for years to come. Consider making new investments that will enhance teaching and learning:

    • During abnormal circumstances (like a global pandemic)–how can new technology help our school fill gaps in distance/hybrid learning? 
    • Once things return to “normal”–will this tech still be useful when we’re all back in the classroom? 
    • In the long run–is this technology adaptable/flexible/durable/sustainable enough to hold its value for students and teachers beyond the next few years? 
5. Choose your partners wisely.

If making large technology investments is new for your school, putting all the pieces together can be overwhelming. Take, for example, going 1:1 for the first time using CARES/ESSER funding. It’s more involved than just buying Chromebooks (which can be a challenge on its own in 2020). In addition to choosing the right devices, you need a plan for setup/configuration, deploying, connecting, maintaining, and repairing all those student devices.

Consider working with an experienced K-12 technology partner like FireFly. You’ll have a dedicated, personal Account Manager who will work with you to meet your specific technology goals, stretch your budget as far as possible, and navigate the challenges and issues that arise.

 

Learn More About the CARES Act

Want to hear more about the CARES Act? Check out this webinar we did with Dr. Casey Agena (Manager of Bids and Proposals at Securly), Joshua Ratliff (Professional Development Instructor at Trinity3), and Abby Erickson (Sr. Account Manager at FireFly Computers). During this one-hour session, we break down the CARES Act funding and talk about making smart purchases in 2021. Check it out!

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