ESSER Funds Sunset in September 2024. What Does That Mean for School Libraries?
If you’re involved in public schools, you’ve probably heard by now that the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds will end in September 2024. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds were created to assist schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While a statutory end to pandemic relief funding has been on the planning calendar from the start, many school librarians are only beginning to anticipate what will happen when the funding ends – and how it will impact their libraries. To help school librarians prepare for the expiration of the ESSER funds, we have put together some guidance that covers what the ESSER funds are, the potential consequences of their expiration, and how school librarians can start preparing for the future.
What Are ESSER Funds?
The ESSER funds were a series of government aid programs for schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were sent out in three separate installments, each as a part of a larger aid package for the public as a whole. Each of those three installments had its own special requirements and stipulations for use, aimed at enriching the lives of students and staff. For many schools, that took the form of new technology, new school supplies, and in some places, new ebooks and digital collections for the library.
The problem? Each installment of the ESSER funds came with a use-it-or-lose-it deadline. For the first, it was September 2022. For the second, September 2023. And now, for the third and final installment, September 30th, 2024, is creeping up over the horizon. Once this final deadline has passed, schools will be forced to return any unspent ESSER funds to the federal government, so many administrators are taking the opportunity to start investing that money now. While the money is still good until September, that’s not exactly the problem. The problem is what comes after. How will it impact America’s public schools, especially their libraries?
When the federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds run out in the 2024-2025 school year, schools and districts will face several budget implications.
- Budget Shortfalls: Many schools and districts have relied on these funds to cover additional costs incurred due to the pandemic. With the expiration of ESSER funds, they may face budget shortfalls, particularly in areas where they used these funds for ongoing expenses.
Sustainability of Initiatives: Programs or positions created or expanded using ESSER funds might not be sustainable without additional funding. Schools will need to decide whether to integrate these costs into their regular budgets, seek alternative funding sources, or discontinue these programs.
- Reassessment of Priorities: Schools will need to reassess their priorities and potentially make difficult decisions about which pandemic-era initiatives to continue, modify, or eliminate. This might include reevaluating technology investments, mental health supports, and academic interventions.
- Impact on Staffing: Positions created or maintained using ESSER funds may be at risk. This could lead to staff reductions unless alternative funding sources are identified.
With the end of federal funding, there may be increased pressure on state and local sources to make up for the shortfall. This could lead to budget reconfigurations, reallocation of existing funds, or even tax increases. School districts will need to engage in careful financial planning and communicate transparently with stakeholders about the changes and challenges ahead. There should be heightened vigilence about educational equity, as the withdrawal of ESSER funds could disproportionately impact under-resourced schools that have fewer means to compensate for the loss of funding. Districts may need to shift their focus from short-term pandemic response to long-term strategic planning, considering how to best support student learning and well-being in a post-pandemic environment.
The Possible Consequences
Without the help of the ESSER funds, many schools will have to rethink how they operate. The costs of running and maintaining a library have only risen since the pandemic, and show no signs of slowing down. Many schools were using the ESSER funds to compensate for this, but come September, they may have to start tightening their purse strings to get by. Unfortunately, this will likely come in the form of new initiatives being shut down, staff being laid off, and projects in progress being left by the wayside.
This, in turn, presents a whole host of other issues concerning the school library’s ability to serve its school community, and the equity in those services. School libraries that were underfunded before the ESSER may return to being underfunded again soon. Many of these libraries serve low-income communities and do not have taxpayer support to fill budget gaps.
To prepare for the expiration of the ESSER funds, school librarians should start by noting how they have been using the funds and evaluating with administrators, stakeholders, and colleagues which services could get by with a reduced budget, which services, if any, could be completely scrapped without too much issue, and which are non-negotiable.
How School Librarians Should Prepare
- Start by noting how you’ve been using the ESSER funds. If your library was well-funded to begin with, you may have just been using the ESSER funds to make your already great services even better. In that case, you’ll take a bit of a hit when the funds’ sunset, but should get by without too much trouble. If you were underfunded, though, you’ve probably been using the ESSER funds to stay afloat. In that case, you’ll need to do a bit of planning and plenty of clever budgeting beforehand. The transition will definitely be a bit bumpy, but with the proper preparation, you’ll weather the storm.
- Figure out which of your services have to stay, and which could stand to go. School libraries provide an extremely wide range of services, and while they’re all important, some certainly take priority over others. Determine which of your services need to keep their full funding, which services could get by with a reduced budget, and which, if any, could be completely scrapped without too much issue. Having freed up a bit of extra money, you’re free to reallocate it as needed.
Though these are both complicated processes, they’re well worth doing, and will leave you better prepared for the end of the ESSER funds. The transition to a post-ESSER world will be a challenging one for school libraries across the nation. However, with proper preparation, school librarians can weather the storm and continue to provide valuable services to their communities.
About John Chrastka
EveryLibrary’s founder is John Chrastka, a long-time library trustee, supporter, and advocate. John is a former partner in AssociaDirect, a Chicago-based consultancy focused on supporting associations in membership recruitment, conference, and governance activities. He is a former president and member of the Board of Trustees for the Berwyn (IL) Public Library (2006 – 2015) and is a former president of the Reaching Across Illinois Libraries System (RAILS) multi-type library system. He is co-author of “Before the Ballot; Building Support for Library Funding.” and “Winning Elections and Influencing Politicians for Library Funding”. Prior to his work at AssociaDirect, he was Director for Membership Development at the American Library Association (ALA) and a co-founder of the Ed Tech startup ClassMap. He was named a 2014 Mover & Shaker by Library Journal and tweets @mrchrastka.
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