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How the ARPA Stimulus Funds Can Move Us from Crisis to Prevention in SEL

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

This blog is sponsored by our partner MyLife for Schools. MyLife for Schools is a new web-based mindfulness tool that works in the classroom, in distance learning and in a hybrid educational model. Middle and High School student’s check-in regularly with how they’re feeling, and MyLife recommends short mindfulness activities tuned to their emotions. Teachers and administrators have the ability to see both classroom and school dashboards that compile and anonymize students’ emotional data. Learn more here.

Congress acted unprecedentedly for the unprecedented times. Signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will provide $122 billion for state and local education agencies. The newly signed legislation comes with a few more strings than the previous two rounds of stimulus funds, but there is also an increased focus on student wellbeing and social emotional learning.

What’s in the Bill?

At least 20% ($22 billion) of local education agency funds must be used to address learning loss through evidence-based interventions that respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs. The remaining funds can be used for any allowable use under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act; and Adult Education and Family Literacy Act.

Other uses include:

  • Mental health services

  • Purchasing educational technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity as well as assistive technology or adaptive equipment)

  • Addressing learning loss

  • School facility repairs to reduce risk of coronavirus transmission and support student health

  • Summer learning and supplemental after-school programs

  • Conducting activities to address the needs of students from low-income families, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and youth in foster care

  • Coordinating with public health departments

  • Implementing public health protocols including policies in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for school-reopening

  • Implementing activities to maintain the operation and continuity of services and to employ existing staff

The Alliance for Excellent Education has a helpful fact sheet here.

Safe and Healthy Schools

For years, Congress has spoken a great deal on creating environments and school climates that are safe and healthy for students. The last large funding conversation around these issues came during the debate on the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. The conversation came around a new block grant, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants. This block grant requires funds to be used on providing a well-rounded education, supporting safe and healthy schools, and supporting the effective use of technology.

Upon passage, Congress then stipulated that at least 20% of a district’s Title IV, part A funds must go toward safe and healthy schools, and another 20% must go toward a well-rounded education. The remaining 60% can be used on any priority that falls within the three categories. This means if a district is looking to implement solutions to address student well-being and mental health, up to 80% of Title IV funds can be used for these purposes including providing school-based mental health services and counseling and promoting supportive school climates. (These spending requirements were waived for the 2020-2021 school year, meaning the entire fund could be used however the district sees fit.) The entire fund was authorized by Congress at $1.4 billion.

This was very encouraging to the mental health advocates. This was the first time these priorities were funded at the federal level in years. However, that encouragement quickly turned to disappointment when Congress only allocated $400 million for the first year of the block grant. By the time these funds got down to the local level, there was virtually nothing substantial that could be done.

The Parkland Shooting

Tragedy struck on February 14th, 2018 when a gunman entered and killed 17 at a local school in Parkland, Florida. It sadly took this event to bring the mental health conversation back to the House and Senate floor, but the shooting did take place at the time when Congress was debating funding for Title IV-A for the next fiscal year. This tragic event did change the debate, and Title IV-A was then funded closer to the max at $1.2 Billion. This increase gave a little more to districts working to implement strategies and curriculum to address social emotional wellbeing for students.

Moving from Crisis to Prevention

Social emotional learning has typically been underfunded and has a history of funding social emotional wellbeing during crises. As previously demonstrated it has taken a pandemic and a tragic loss of life to bring the conversation to the debate floor. This all comes amidst the data from the Center for Disease Control that, “after a period of stability from 2000 to 2007, the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults aged 10–24 in the United States increased 57.4% from 6.8 per 100,000 in 2007 to 10.7 in 2018.”

The pandemic specifically has turned all eyes to these statistics as well. According to the New York Times, “adolescent suicide during the pandemic cannot conclusively be linked to school closures; national data on suicides in 2020 have yet to be compiled. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the percentage of youth emergency room visits that were for mental health reasons had risen during the pandemic. The actual number of those visits fell, though researchers noted that many people were avoiding hospitals that were dealing with the crush of coronavirus patients. And a compilation of emergency calls in more than 40 states among all age groups showed increased numbers related to mental health.”

All of these statistics and data point to the fact that the United States is still in crisis mode when it comes to addressing student social and emotional learning. The ARPA provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to put a focus (and funds) toward mental health challenges and moving the nation from a crisis situation to one that focuses on prevention by investing in students everyday, in real-time. It will be tempting for districts to add more core academics to address learning loss, but if students aren’t in the right place mentally coming back, the instruction will be done in vain.

Operating in crisis mode has largely been the norm for funding and practice when it comes to social and emotional learning. ARPA now provides a renewed dedication to addressing social and emotional needs for students. In fact, Pasi Sahlburg, a world-renowned education leader stated, “Since February Covid-19 has left over 40 million Americans jobless, more than 100,000 people dead, and millions of children hurt in a country where a quarter of children lived in poverty prior to the pandemic. These children will not be ready to learn and thrive unless they feel physically and emotionally safe and protected at school. I agree with colleagues who have called for giving top priority to child and teacher wellbeing in schools before expecting that they will be able to return to business-as-usual in school learning.” If we do not use the opportunity of ARPA funding and flexibility, there will be long-term emotional and academic consequences.

What Students Need Right Now

Students are hurting and confused right now. Students reported to MyLife for Schools stating, “Well, this " new " learning on the computer and doing a lot of Zooms for 7 hours EVERY SINGLE DAY makes me very stressed and worried that I might get bad grades and I won't do good. But with MyLife, it helps me so much, and also it takes out all of my negative things about the school and all my stress goes away.”

Allowing students to reflect must be top priority for educators. Another student stated, “I love the self-reflection aspect of MyLife, it allows you to be truthful with yourself about how you feel and allows you to properly reflect on how you're feeling bad."

Every student experienced the pandemic in different ways. One student says they “feel like I am more open minded and empathetic. I know that if there is nothing I can do in the moment I should not stress. I also know to manage my time better and stay focused." These thoughts and reactions are the required starting point in order to move on to academic success.

Initial data reported from using MyLife for Schools shows that taking under ten minutes to focus first thing in the morning helps improve how students feel. The survey participants are reporting:

  • 79% Are more likely to make healthy decisions

  • 69% Are better able to manage stress

  • 62% Are better able to concentrate

Now is the time to invest in strategies, tools, and partners that will get students in the right mindset for learning.

Learn more about MyLife for Schools

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