Since early July, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has periodically announced the approval of American Rescue Plan funds for states to support K-12 schools. While some districts are already spending the money, others are still awaiting the federal support.
On March 11, President Joe Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which provided almost $125 billion for education. Since the bill was passed, state officials were asked to submit a plan of how the funds would be used, with allowable provisions including returning to a safe in-person environment, implementing COVID-19 mitigation strategies, offering summer learning, providing social, emotional, and mental health as well as addressing the academic impact of lost instructional time.
Last month, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York sent a letter to the Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging clear guidance for states and school districts on how they can use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to hire and retain school bus drivers.
As School Transportation News previously reported, a press release issued by Gillibrand’s office, states that the DOE “has not provided specific guidance about this allowable use and thus, it is likely many school districts are unaware that they can use these funds to address the bus driver shortage.”
Brian Zachery, director of transportation for Noblesville Schools in Indiana, said that his district decided to use the funds to give a bonus to every employee, including those in transportation. He noted that between building staff, bus drivers and attendants, transportation has 160 staff members and the amount each person received depended on their job classification.
He said ESSER funds were also used to pay transportation employees who worked overtime while students stayed late after school or who attended remedial remediation work due to the pandemic learning loss.
He added that the district decided how the money was to be used, and school districts across the state used the funds in different ways. He added that some transportation-related costs due to COVID-19 were also offset by the federal funding from last year.
For instance, the Noblesville district administration allowed only one student per bus seat until April of last school year, and its elementary students attended school in-person five days a week. Zachery said the district had to run double routes for all four of its elementary schools, so the federal funds helped pay for the daily cost increases.
Meanwhile, Huron School District 2-2 in South Dakota is still awaiting the federal funds, despite the DOE approving ESSER funds for the state. Kathie Bostrom, the director of transportation, said she has plans on what the money will be spent on for transportation, and has already bought some things hoping to be reimbursed from the ESSER funds. For instance, she said her department purchased soft plastic barriers that were installed between the seats and the driver for all 35 of the district’s buses.
“That’s something we wanted to do to help protect our drivers and especially our limited amount of drivers with the shortage,” she shared.
The district purchased disposable and cloth face masks in both adult and child sizes as well as sanitizer and spraying machines. Bostrom noted that transportation also added camera systems throughout the fleet, and she said she also hopes to purchase an additional two yellow buses and two executive coach buses.
She added the district also raised bus driver pay by $5 an hour, taking the maximum hourly wage to $30.
Related: Infrastructure Funds for School Buses Remain Unchanged in House-Passed Bill
Related: Nearly 100 U.S. Representatives Seek Tax-Free Status for CERTS Program Funds
Related: CERTS By the Numbers: How Treasury Divided Up $2B
Related: States Receive $600M to Support Students Experiencing Homelessness
Related: COVID-19 Protocols on School Buses Eligible for American Rescue Plan Funds
However, Brette Fraley, the executive director of transportation for Kanawha County Schools in West Virginia, is already spending ESSER funds as needed. He said the funds went right into his budget for this school year, and he can access them whenever he needs them. He said the primary purpose for using the federal funds was for personal protective equipment for drivers and students.
“And of course, one of our big concerns are our seat covers and driver seatbelts and things that are going to be impacted by the cleaning because there’s so much cleaning going on,” Fraley said, adding that money is in the budget to replace harnesses and restraints for special needs buses as well as seat covers. He explained that while the state hasn’t notified Kanawha County to replace them yet, he anticipates it will be needed due to the frequent cleaning.
He added federal funding was also used for a more robust Summer Academy program in which transportation assisted.
According to a July reader survey by School Transportation News, only 27 percent of 82 respondents had received the American Rescue Plan funds at the time. When asked what provisions transportation is using the funds for, over three-quarters said cleaning supplies and PPE (76 percent). Other leading uses included summer school transportation (57 percent), technology purchases (52 percent), and special education transportation (29 percent). Editor’s Note: More than one answer was allowed in the survey.
Respondents next used funds to hire more drivers and staff, McKinney-Vento transportation and purchasing school buses (14 percent). However, only 5 percent of 21 respondents that received ARP funds were using the money on staff bonuses.