The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) recently asked state-level education leaders nationwide to identify the top issues facing students and schools in the wake of the pandemic. Their responses were surprisingly consistent: expanding learning opportunities and addressing students’ social-emotional (SEL) needs.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, the most recent of three congressional COVID relief packages, requires that at least 90% of the $190 billion in federal education funding go to local education agencies and higher education institutions and that state education authorities draft plans for spending their share of the funding — up to 10% of a state’s allocation — before receiving the final third of the money.

A recent FutureEd analysis of 39 state plans submitted to DOE found that leaders are pursuing spending goals in a variety of ways. The 74 recently provided a roundup of how several states plan to fund these priorities. (For information specific to California funding, including ESSER applications for funds and deadlines, please visit the California Department of Education’s ARP Act website.)

Lost Learning Opportunities

Because the law mandates that states use some of their relief aid to address lost learning opportunities through expanded summer and extended day programming, every plan includes such initiatives. For example, Washington worked with the local parks and recreation departments to coordinate summer youth development programs. Oklahoma is working with Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs to enhance afterschool programs. Hawaii plans to help students navigate transitions into elementary, middle and high school, and college.

And many states are doing more to increase instructional time.

At least two dozen states are funding tutoring programs. Arkansas is establishing a tutoring corps to connect organizations seeking to support students’ academic needs with a bank of trained candidates. Kentucky is drafting guidance on effective tutoring programs and so-called vacation academies — small-group instructional opportunities during school breaks. North Dakota is making free tutoring available for math, SAT and advanced placement preparation, as well as college applications through the website

To increase its tutoring capacity, Rhode Island plans to expand its partnership with AmeriCorps affiliates, while several other states are hiring college students to help run summer programming and tutoring initiatives. South Carolina sees these “teaching interns” as a new source of future educators. Oklahoma is investing in Algebra I tutoring for up to 1,500 secondary school students annually, with college students serving as tutors.

New York is providing expanded learning opportunities by funding $195-million, multi-year expansion of full-day, universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds. New Hampshire is funding Recovering Bright Futures, which provides free learning pods, or small-group instruction, for K-8 students, while South Carolina is continuing to equip school buses with Wi-Fi to ensure more students are connected to the internet.

SEL and Mental-Health

Beyond academic recovery, 28 states have pledged to address students’ SEL and mental health needs, recognizing the isolation, and in many instances trauma, that students and staff members experienced during the pandemic.

Oklahoma is earmarking $35 million for 300 school counselors and licensed mental health professionals. Texas and Wyoming are using screening tools to identify students’ mental health needs.

Alaska, New Hampshire and New York are among the states planning to invest in restorative or culturally relevant school discipline practices that bring students together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions and air grievances.

And Alaska is piloting a program to train social workers in remote school districts to deal with student trauma, including creating a calm learning environment that avoids harsh discipline.

Many states are funding innovative strategies to get students excited about returning to school. Kansas is offsetting costs for field trips to museums, zoos, historical sites, state parks and the state fair. Idaho and Michigan are funding educational programming on public television. New Mexico is offering an internship program connecting students to job opportunities. And Montana is planning a student film festival in summer 2022, with workshops throughout the school year to teach students movie-making skills.

Teacher Shortages and Curriculum

Nearly all states are working to strengthen their teacher workforces. Citing shortages in key disciplines like special education and computer science, Arkansas is waiving teacher licensure fees and expediting the licensing process. Massachusetts passed a law allowing emergency licenses to fill gaps and is creating regional partnerships to mentor new teachers. New York is developing a survey to identify its critical shortages and piloting diversity pipelines to expand and diversify its teaching corps.

Several states are investing COVID relief money in “grow-your-own” programs to recruit educators from the ranks of teacher aides, school support staff or local college students, a strategy designed to increase diversity and result in higher retention rates, especially in hard-to-staff schools.

States are also dedicating money to revamping curriculum and training teachers on such topics as digital learning, the science of reading and math instruction. Washington, D.C., is conducting an audit of its curricular materials, and Connecticut is developing a model statewide curriculum for the subjects taught in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Data Integrity

To measure student progress, 20 states have designated money to improve their data systems and analysis capacity. Washington, D.C., is investing funding to improve the collection of academic outcomes and early childhood data to support kindergarten readiness. Arkansas is launching an early warning system to assess when students are headed off track for graduation. And Missouri is using $4.3 million from an early round of COVID relief funding to upgrade a 15-year-old data system so it has greater capacity to collect and analyze information on individual students throughout their years in school.

Some state education agencies are tapping outside resources to strengthen data collection. Washington is working with its state university to analyze results from the state’s COVID-19 student survey. Connecticut is launching a consortium of researchers from the state’s universities and regional education centers, as well as district and school leaders, to assess the pandemic’s effect on student achievement and interventions to address interrupted learning.

Ultimately, most of the COVID relief spending choices in elementary and secondary education over the next three years will take place at the local level. But states will play a substantial role in shaping the approaches that schools and districts take to investing the federal funding. And state education agencies’ priorities for spending their share of the relief aid suggest that mental health initiatives, tutoring and comprehensive data systems for tracking student needs are likely to become increasingly prominent in public education.