Schools nationwide are taking advantage of CARES or ESSER funding, a one-time influx of federal emergency relief funds to address the impact of COVID-19. The scope of acceptable uses for this funding often leaves school communicators and superintendents wondering what constitutes acceptable uses for improving communications and community engagement.
There are 15 allowable uses of ESSER funds. In this blog, we’ll break down three of those uses that can be directly applied to school communications:
Any activity authorized by the ESEA of 1965, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq.) (‘‘IDEA’’);
Other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency;
Activities to address the unique needs of low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth, including how outreach and service delivery will meet the needs of each population.
Allowable Use 1: Any activity authorized by the ESEA of 1965, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq.) (‘‘IDEA’’).
Website accessibility and compliance are no longer emerging issues. If you are struggling to reach or maintain compliance, ESSER funding could be your opportunity to get started.
ADA compliance is a complicated issue, and we don’t recommend going too far down the road on your own trying to figure it out. Your first call should be your website provider. Having a provider that is knowledgeable in this area will be a game-changer for you, as they likely have an abundance of experience and advice regarding website compliance.
A reputable school website provider like Finalsite will be able to walk you down the path to compliance step-by-step, from the initial discussion, to education and training, to complete resolution.
If your website hasn’t been redesigned in the last four to five years, it might actually be less stressful, time consuming and expensive to resolve any ADA compliance issues by starting from scratch through a full redesign. A website redesign with an objective to resolve ADA compliance issues is permissible under ESSER. Websites built prior to the ADA compliance legislation did not follow the same design structure and guidelines that they do today. Trying to fix a site built in a previous era may not be worth the effort.
You may be wondering what is left to do once your site is considered compliant? Shouldn’t you be good to go from there? The short answer is no, website accessibility is never “done.” You create new content on your website every day. Every new image, announcement and calendar item added must also be accessible, and that ownership lies with the content contributors, not the website provider.
The good news: this doesn’t need to be a daunting task. Finalsite Composer has built-in accessibility tools that will flag content that falls outside of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and offers suggestions to resolve those issues. Finalsite also partners with AudioEye whose product includes an accessibility toolbar to make website content accessible to all visitors, as well as an auto-remediation service that detects accessibility errors and fixes them. ESSER funding can be used to purchase AudioEye or alternative ADA compliance tools.
Allowable Use 2: Other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency.
School communication has been essential throughout this pandemic. Next to health and safety, it is often cited as the next most critical need of a district or school today. Your website and digital communications tools are at the center of that strategy. If your website software or design isn’t cutting it to keep your community informed during this ongoing pandemic, the issue can be addressed with ESSER funds.
This allowable use is broader than others. Communications that are “necessary to maintain the operation and continuity of services” in a district can be vast, and can include many things, including the following:
Website design and software
Email newsletter software
Surveys and/or Forms
Website design and software
Your website is the hub of your communications efforts. Schools around the globe found website traffic increased dramatically during COVID, validating that this is where parents, students and staff go to seek information. With all eyes on your website, there’s no doubt that parent expectations on design and navigation are also higher than ever before. Looking back, has your website met those demands or is there room for improvement? ESSER funding can be used to revamp and redesign your website to better meet the needs of your community.
When people visit your website, what is their first impression? Did you know that it takes .05 seconds for a website visitor to form an opinion about your school district? What kind of opinion do you want them to have?
This is about more than just design, it’s about the full user experience. A good user experience would mean that a person visited your district website, understood the content and got what they were looking for.
Can your parent community find what they need in one to two clicks? Do you have a functional back-to-school, COVID and/or communications hub to house important information? If not, you may consider using ESSER funds to redesign your website to provide much-needed design and functionality.
Read More: What to Expect from the Finalsite Redesign Process
With more than half of today’s parents today accessing your district’s website on their mobile devices, it’s imperative that a mobile strategy is at the core of your design. Not sure if your website makes the grade on mobile? Ask yourself these three questions:
Does my website offer a seamless experience on all devices?
Does my website load quickly on a phone or tablet?
Is my website easy to navigate on a small screen?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, it’s time to take a closer look at your mobile strategy, and it’s acceptable to use ESSER funds to make it happen.
Let’s take a look at Stillwater Area Public Schools’ website. They do a terrific job organizing content COVID-related information with mobile in mind. The district uses tabs and accordions to condense page content and make the page easier to read on a small screen. Plus, this method is touch-friendly for mobile users.
Beyond the design, you’ll want to ensure the provider you choose for your website has a platform that combines powerful tools with an easy-to-use system. Finalsite Composer was built with that in mind, with a WYSIWYG interface and modules like posts and C.O.P.E. to bring your communications to the next level.
Email newsletter software
Newsletters are a mainstay of district and school communications, and a driver of all information related to COVID-19. If your newsletter software is not meeting the needs of your department or community, consider using ESSER funds to purchase or upgrade your current system.
If you already send a weekly or bi-weekly district newsletter, you’re on the right track! But simply sending out a newsletter without considering the habits and needs of your community isn’t enough. How often have you had the problem of sending out a district communication to find that a large percentage of your recipients didn’t open it? And if they did open it, they didn’t read it all? A lot of those issues can be broken down into these categories:
Poor formatting or design
Lackluster subject lines
Not having a mobile-friendly template
Difficulty creating the newsletter (meaning it never gets sent)
Lack of data to inform what’s working
You’ll find a more informed community comes with higher newsletter open and click-through rates, and having the right tools on hand can help you overcome those obstacles.
Finalsite clients rely on Finaliste Messages to design and send email newsletters, all integrated within the Composer CMS platform. Not only are the designs beautiful and easy to create, but they can also be populated with dynamic content that already lives on your website’s news or calendars sections- a Create Once, Publish Everywhere (C.O.P.E.) feature that saves district communicators precious time. Purchasing a system like Finalsite Messages to improve district communications is permissible under ESSER.
Surveys and Forms
Mobile-friendly online forms are an essential tool for schools and districts of all sizes. During COVID-19, surveying your community has become even more valuable and important, so implementing a reliable tool for this purpose will strengthen your community engagement efforts. Purchasing survey/form tools is an acceptable use of funding under ESSER.
There are a variety of options for surveys and forms, but we recommend using one that intergrates directly into your website. Not only does it eliminate the need for another vendor/tool, it makes it easier to do everything in one place.
If you are a Finalsite client, we hope you are taking advantage of Finalsite Forms, which make it incredibly easy to build beautiful, versatile forms that embed directly onto your website, eliminating the need for separate forms or survey software.
Sun Prairie School District is a great example of how to use forms for community engagement. The district uses Finalsite Forms for everything from its emergency tip line to gathering questions about COVID-19 protocols. Also notice how streamlined and on-brand the form looks on the website, much different than a Google Form or third-party tool!
Allowable use 3: Activities to address the unique needs of low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth, including how outreach and service delivery will meet the needs of each population.
Better meeting the needs of low-income students and English learners has risen to the top of many district’s to-do lists. When COVID first emerged, gaps in communication due to lack of translation or internet access presented themselves more clearly than ever before. Ensuring all families are able to access your district’s communications, regardless of the language they speak, is essential, and also a permissible expense using ESSER funding.
The core of translation begins where your information is housed - on your website - and relying on Google Translate isn’t enough.
While Google Translate is a convenient and inexpensive tool, it’s usually not an accurate way to translate content. Automated translation from this source can result in some pretty off-the-wall translations leaving families more confused than informed.
In working with schools in over 100 countries, Finalsite knows the importance of multi-language websites. We’ve partnered with Weglot to help schools easily and more seamlessly translate their websites into more than 100 languages. While Weglot's translation API is automated, it’s accuracy is more reliable than other tools on the market.
Perhaps the best part about the tool is that admin users can manually review and override incorrect translations through a simple editing interface. Any corrections will appear everywhere that phrase or name pops up on your site.
If you’d like to see Weglot in action, check out Sycamore 427’s website. The district depends on this tool for its reliability and ease of use, ensuring all families have access to important information online.
Looking at the user behaviors of today’s parents, mobile apps are a great fit for most schools and districts. Today’s user relies on mobile apps to find and interact with content. User testing studies suggest that nearly 90% of a user’s time spent on a mobile device is spent in apps — not a mobile browser.
Mobile apps become even more important for community engagement if your school or district has a high low-income population, where in-home internet access is less likely.
A Pew Internet Research Study from 2021 revealed that about 7% of American’s still don’t have Internet access. And while for some this is a choice, for others it's a matter of accessibility and affordability. The same study revealed that nearly 14% of households making less than $30,000 a year aren’t yet online. This same group without in-home Internet access does have access to a smartphone, however — making it imperative that a mobile app paired with a mobile web browsing experience is part of your overall plan.
In addition to using Finalsite’s mobile app to share information, Tippecanoe School Corporation uses it for emergency notifications. When parents opt in to receive push notifications on the app, they will continue to receive important alerts, even if their phone number changes - a common theme for financially disadvantaged families. "Once we adopted the app, we completely got out of the text messaging business. No more depending on the phone carrier as the middle man,” Tippecanoe’s Director of Technology Devin Arms said.
The good news is that ESSER funding can be applied to purchasing a mobile app, especially to better serve low-income families. If you’re shopping around for one, check out our Ultimate Guide to Mobile Apps for Schools to get started.
ESSER funding is available to districts and charter schools across the country to help overcome the obstacles that COVID-19 has presented. There are several ways to utilize this funding to improve district communications that will set your community up for a more successful (and informed) school year ahead.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Morgan Delack is Finalsite's Director of Communications, leading the marketing team's public school content, branding initiatives and professional development events. Morgan's background is a mixture of public school communications and television journalism, having worked in both industries for several years. She was named among NSPRA's 35 under 35 and has earned two Emmy Awards for her work in broadcasting. Morgan lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two kids.