TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — When it comes to putting federal pandemic dollars to use, Florida’s plan for billions of dollars was given the greenlight by the U.S. Department of Education.

The U.S. DOE approved Florida’s plan to use American Rescue Plan funding, dollars set aside by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief portion of the American Rescue Plan Act, to assist K-12 schools and students.

Now, the federal department has released $2.3 billion to Florida, aimed at sustaining “the safe operation of schools and equitably expand opportunity for students who need it most, particularly those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to USDOE.

“I am excited to announce approval of Florida’s plan,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “It is heartening to see, reflected in these state plans, the ways in which states are thinking deeply about how to use American Rescue Plan funds to continue to provide critical support to schools and communities. The approval of these plans enables states to receive vital, additional American Rescue Plan funds to help keep schools open for full-time, in-person learning.”

According to Cardona, the funds will be used to help meet students’ needs across multiple directions, including academic, social, emotional and mental health requirements.

The first two-thirds of ARP ESSER funds were distributed to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. At that time, in 2021, $81 billion was disbursed. The last third of the funds were made available, with the condition that states submit plans for how they’d use the money. The $2.3 billion for Florida comes from that final portion.

“The state plans that have been submitted to the Department lay the groundwork for the ways in which an unprecedented infusion of federal resources will be used to address the urgent needs of America’s children and build back better,” Cardona said.

In total, Florida received $7 billion in ESSER funds, with the final $2.3 billion now given with the state plan’s approval. USDOE said all 52 state plans have now been approved. Florida’s federal representatives praised the release of the ESSER funds.

“As COVID-19 rates soar across Florida, this federal funding is a vital lifeline to keeping children and classrooms safe and safeguarding our productive learning environments across the state,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a statement provided by USDOE. “The unwavering leadership of President Biden and Secretary Cardona has been critical to ensuring that students, teachers, and staff can maintain academic success, as well as physical, social, and emotional support, as top education priorities throughout this pandemic.”

According to USDOE, ESSER fund plans were approved, once states showed how the federal pandemic resources would “support safe, in-person instruction” for students. The federal department provided two examples.

  • Addressing the Academic Impact of Lost Instructional Time: The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) will use ARP ESSER funding to implement a tutoring initiative for students in the early grades focused on closing gaps that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. FDOE also will provide grants to all school districts to invest in evidence-based reading strategies and professional development aligned to the science of reading, including deploying literacy coaches. In addition, FDOE will use ARP ESSER funds to provide formula grants to expand access to STEM programs, to support math acceleration and expand computer science credentials in high schools.  
  • Investing in Summer Learning and Expanded Afterschool Programs: FDOE will provide matching grants to school districts to enhance or create evidence-based summer learning programs with a focus on reading achievement and evidence-based comprehensive afterschool and weekend programs to support acceleration in literacy achievement.

Additionally, USDOE said “$130 billion for K-12 education in the American Rescue Plan to support the safe reopening of K-12 schools and meet the needs of all students, were provided by the Biden-Harris Administration.”

According to the Dept. of Education, the Biden-Harris administration has used the funding to:

  • Prioritized the vaccination of educators, school staff and child care workers leading to more than 90% of school staff vaccinated nationwide.  
  • Hosted a National Safe School Reopening Summit and launched a series of Equity Summits focused on addressing inequities that existed before but were made worse by the pandemic.  
  • Provided $10 billion in funding for COVID-19 testing for PreK-12 educators, staff, and students. As part of the Administration’s efforts to increase access to and implementation of testing programs in schools, the Administration partnered with the CDC and the Rockefeller Foundation to provide resources to help ensure that all schools can access and set up screening testing programs as quickly as possible. The Department also provided a FAQ outlining allowable use of funds for ESSER and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund for coronavirus testing among other uses.  
  • Developed a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse elevating hundreds of best practices to support schools’ efforts to reopen safely and address the impacts of COVID-19 on students, educators, and communities.   
  • Announced new mental health resources to provide information and resources to enhance the promotion of mental health and the social and emotional well-being among children and students.  
  • Released three volumes of the COVID-19 Handbook to identify evidence-based strategies to meet the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students and support the educator workforce.
  • Released a report on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on underserved communities.