In 2021, the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund provided $122 billion to state educational agencies and K-12 public school districts for much needed financial relief to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. When these dollars first began flowing into school districts in spring 2021, many districts developed budgets with innovative programs and generous spending to ensure they spent the funds by the January 28, 2025, deadline.

A year later, high inflation, labor shortages, and supply chain issues have many district administrators concerned that they will not be able to meet the spending deadline—and will have to return significant portions of their funds to the federal government. During the 2021-2022 school year, bus driver shortages made transportation to school in some districts so unreliable that students missed entire days of school simply because they had no way to get there, according to CBS Saturday Morning news. Meanwhile, 97% of school meal programs have reported challenges with higher food costs, and 98% have reported challenges with procuring certain items, according to a survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association. Additionally, while summer learning recovery programs were in high demand in 2022, some had to cut enrollment due to staffing shortages, The Washington Post reports. Now, as the 2022-2023 school year begins, school districts across the country are reporting major staffing shortages in all areas, according to The Washington Post. Students also are starting the school year off significantly behind academically, with the National Center for Education Statistics reporting that two decades of academic progress has been lost since the start of the pandemic.

While the start of the new school year may be posing many challenges to school districts, community-based backbone, intermediary, and advocacy organizations have the resources, networks, and capacity that school districts are struggling to source on their own. In many cases, these community partners also can assemble critical resources more quickly than school districts can. As districts look to spend their American Rescue Plan funds, they may have to find alternative strategies to spend their funds on time. This is where community advocates can be most effective.

Children’s Funding Project has collected hundreds of examples of how communities have chosen to spend their American Rescue Plan dollars to support children and youth. One of the most efficient and effective ways we have seen school districts spend their relief funds is through community partnerships with families, local nonprofits, cultural organizations, businesses, and colleges and universities. Below are some examples of how school districts have integrated community partnerships into their spending processes:

  • The Sioux City Community School District in Sioux City, IA, created a community grant program for $15 million of its total $38 million Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds. The grantees are helping the district implement various learning recovery strategies, including programs offered during and after school and in the summer.
  • The Buffalo City Public School District, in Buffalo, NY, worked with community members to develop and adopt a districtwide, research-based framework to strengthen effective family and community engagement. It also plans to partner with community-based organizations to conduct ongoing, culturally relevant training and feedback sessions for school personnel, and to identify, train, develop and support grassroots teams of family and community members to help mentor and reach out to other families.
  • Before developing their spending plans, school districts were required to solicit and consider community input. Recognizing the importance of engaging the community in planning the use of public resources, several school districts used their American Rescue Plan funds to expand their community engagement efforts permanently. The Syracuse City School District in Syracuse, NY, hired family engagement facilitators to build community partnerships. Meanwhile, the Detroit Public Schools Community District in Detroit, MI, used some of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds to create School Advisory Councils that convene stakeholders, including principals, students, parents, school support staff, school alumni, and local faith-based and business partners, to plan how students can meet enrollment, attendance, and academic achievement goals.

Community partners can provide the extra administrative capacity necessary to organize spending plans and implement programs. Bringing community partners into the planning and execution process also exposes districts to wider networks of partners and resources that they could not access on their own. Perhaps most critically, community partnerships can help school districts understand priority issue areas for their communities and help school districts align their spending to those priorities.

However, not all school districts have preestablished relationships with community partners.  Those that do, may not be getting the most out of their partnerships because they lack the necessary coordinating structures. This is especially true for smaller districts that may not have the capacity to hire staff dedicated to fostering community partnerships. Below are some resources for building school-community partnerships that community advocates can use to build their own strategies:

The American Rescue Plan provided school districts the opportunity to help kids recover some of what they lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. But kids’ successful recovery depends on how much their communities invest in them. Community-school partnerships formed now can lay the foundation for stronger communities and better outcomes for kids long into the future.

To view additional American Rescue Plan resources and community profiles, visit

Esther Grambs is a research associate at Children’s Funding Project.