What It Means to You—Biden's American Rescue Plan

While some national news stories have drawn attention to the fact that President Biden has been able to sign only two bills into law since taking office almost eight weeks ago, that figure belies the fact that one of those two bills—the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)—contains dozens of major policy and funding wins that many presidents fail to see in their entire tenure.

Here are just a few of the major wins that America’s schools and workers achieved withPresident Biden’s signing of ARPA last Thursday:

 Billions to Reopen K–12 Schools Safely

In the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has talked a big game about reopening schools quickly and safely, but failed to deliver the funding necessary to make that happen. As AFSA pointed out in our July 2020 task force report on “Reopening Schools Safely in the Age of COVID”: “A safe reopening will cost a great deal of money.” After considering all that was needed to reopen schools safely—sanitizing supplies, personal protective equipment, additional medical staff, transportation, internet access, etc.—and various cost estimates, AFSA urged the federal government to provide $175 billion for this purpose. Adding ARPA’s $123 billion to the $67 billion-plus from CARES Acts I and II, the federal government now has provided more than $190 billion for K–12 school reopenings, $15 billion more than we sought. This is a result almost unheard of in Washington, D.C.

Focusing Attention and Funds on Learning Loss

One of AFSA’s biggest concerns over the past year has been how much students were losing academically as a result of limited or no in-person learning, and the disconnection from teachers and peers wrought by remote learning. A recent report by McKinsey projected that: “Students on average could lose five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students.” AFSA highlighted this issue throughout the year and is proud to report that ARPA directs significant dollars toward stemming learning loss immediately. For instance, 20% (more than $22 billion) of ARPA’s K–12 funds flowing to districts, and half of the funds states receive (totaling more than $6 billion), must go toward learning loss programs. Additionally, ARPA requires direct spending on summer and afterschool programs to try to make up some of the ground lost to the pandemic. As McKinsey suggests: “The summer of 2021 presents a promising opportunity. A recent RAND analysis of 43 summer programs suggests that 75 percent were effective in improving at least one outcome, especially in reading.” Thanks to ARPA, states and schools not only can afford to pay for additional programs, but must do so.

Bolstering Special Needs Students

Back in July, AFSA’s task force report declared, “We are concerned that special education...students may be returning to a school program where the protocols, lack of proper staffing and changes in routine may impact their learning process. Additionally, all safety precautions must meet their needs.” A few months later, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed we were right to be concerned, declaring: “Delivering related services—such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech therapy—for students with complex needs was particularly difficult to do remotely.” ARPA recognizes these unique challenges to delivering services to special needs students—as well as the federal government’s continuing failure to fulfill its pledge to states of paying 40% of the cost for educating these students—by providing $3 billion in extra funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Not as much as needed, but it's a great start.

Closing the Homework Gap

While AFSA strongly preferred in-person learning where possible, we recognized that remote learning was the only viable option for much of this past year and perhaps longer for some students. However, the nation learned quickly what AFSA already knew—millions of low-income, Black, Brown and rural students lacked home internet access, an appropriate device or both, making it impossible for many of them to participate at all in COVID-19 remote learning. We were proud to lead a coalition of 65 education groups that pushed Congress to provide significant funding to close this homework gap. With ARPA, that goal was finally achieved. This week, the Federal Communications Commission will begin work to distribute $7.172 billion, furnished via ARPA, to schools and libraries to pay for home internet access and education-appropriate devices for students and teachers.

Protecting America’s Workers and Families

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on America’s workers and, one year in, unemployment levels remain north of 6%. ARPA takes strong steps to protect those who cannot find work or otherwise are struggling financially by providing direct payments of $1,400 per person to individuals earning up to $75,000 annually and couples earning $150,000 combined, with additional payments for any dependents. It also continues through the summer the additional unemployment insurance payments of $300 per week that were scheduled to expire this month. It gives families another significant boost by expanding the federal child care tax credit to $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 for children 6 and younger. Finally, ARPA provides $25 billion for emergency rental assistance, including $5 billion for emergency housing vouchers for people experiencing homelessness, survivors of domestic violence and victims of human trafficking. ARPA’s education provision also includes $800 million to assist homeless students. Taken together, these direct and indirect benefits erect a substantial safety net for the many individuals and families caught in the economic undertow of COVID-19.

Combating the Virus

While the nation appears to have turned a corner recently in terms of lowering overall COVID-19 caseloads and deaths, as well as ramping up vaccinations, ARPA maintains the federal government’s focus on getting the virus under control. Of the more than $55 billion ARPA contains in COVID-19-specific funding, $7.5 billion will go to track, administer and distribute vaccines; $46 billion to diagnosing and tracing infections; and $2 billion for buying and distributing testing supplies. As these dollars are disseminated around the country, we can become increasingly confident that President Biden can reach his goals for opening vaccinations to all adults by May 1—and getting students and educators one step closer to more normal school days by fall.