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Do Now, Build Toward

Resources to help public schools and school systems develop strategies to maximize ESSER investments and COVID recovery

As public schools and school systems reopen and prepare for a new school year, communities are navigating how to address the increased needs and inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, they are also navigating how to create long-lasting change to ensure that every student has better, more equitable experiences in school — this year and beyond.

With a three-year infusion of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding from the American Rescue Plan, leaders are now facing key decisions about how to invest those funds strategically.

To help districts and schools navigate these unprecedented challenges and opportunities, ERS has identified seven principles for investing ESSER funds with a “Do Now, Build Toward” approach — this means addressing critical student needs now by choosing some doable starting points, and designing changes with a sustainable long-term vision in mind. 

To learn more about these 7 principles:

Read the Brief


Watch the Webinar


EXPLORE: Use the drop-down menu below to explore tools and materials for each of the seven principles.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, but it hasn’t affected everyone equally. Equity should be at the forefront of a district’s decision-making process — so quantifying students’ needs across the district (by grade level, student group, and by school) is essential for building the case to act urgently and direct resources where they are needed most.

This tool is designed to help district leaders better understand the current state of education equity in their school system (including strengths and gaps) across 10 dimensions of education resource equity.
This brief discusses the long-term financial impacts of COVID-19 and highlights implications for policy and action for education leaders at all levels. 


Although the challenges that districts and communities face right now are unique, and there is a daunting array of options, it is important to ensure that investments are backed by research.

We identified five research-backed “Power Strategies” to focus ESSER investments and planning  and spotlight real-life examples from districts and schools across the country.


This brief shares research-backed considerations for key aspects of implementing tutoring programs, examines the pitfalls many districts are experiencing as they try to move from their ESSER plans toward implementation, and shares feasible solutions and workarounds to meet the moment. 

To successfully implement proven, high-impact strategies, school leaders will need to set up the types of staffing models and schedules that enable them. This is especially true in high-priority grade levels and subjects, such as early literacy and the transition into high school.

This webinar shares key domains and questions for virtual school planning, featuring panelists from Education First and Tulsa Public Schools.


Based on feedback from districts about priority areas for ESSER investments, this series of guides provides a blueprint for how districts and schools can organize resources during the 2021-22 school year and beyond. Each guide details relevant research, identifies system-level enabling conditions that can help make implementation successful, highlights opportunities for sustainable investments, makes recommendations for “Do Now” priorities, and provides concrete examples of scheduling and staffing models.

Even before the COVID pandemic, students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, English language learners, and students with disabilities consistently faced barriers to opportunity and success in our public education system. Now, the need for high-quality learning, strong relationships, and streamlined access to social-emotional supports is even more deeply felt for these same young people. That makes right now an even more pivotal moment for equity — and ESSER funds present an unprecedented opportunity to disrupt, target, and engage to both address immediate needs and disrupt the longstanding inequities that perpetuate barriers to success.

Educators, school-system leaders, advocates, and families can use this toolkit to start conversations, create shared understandings, and build action plans together. The toolkit includes an overview of the 10 dimensions of education resource equity, a diagnostic to gauge your system’s strengths and gaps, and guidebooks to identify and address the root causes of inequities. 
Three important considerations for district leaders working to make sure ESSER investments equitably meet the needs of all students — plus concrete examples of what organizing ESSER investments to support equity could look like, and highlights from districts and schools around the country. 
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of effectively serving students with disabilities — and exacerbated the inequities embedded in traditional models for doing so. For some of these students a more inclusive learning environment is appropriate — but districts need to know which resources to use and how to target them strategically. This brief shares guidance around what a “Do Now, Build Toward” approach to using ESSER funds for supporting the implementation of effective inclusion models could look like. 

Based on spending patterns after the Great Recession, some districts may feel pressure to spend quickly, backfill shortfalls and reinvest in more of the same. However, the unprecedented infusion of ESSER funds provides an important opportunity for districts to address students’ needs, and make meaningful, long-term change. To ensure districts are able to sustain these changes, they will need to do the work of shifting resources and addressing underlying cost structures to enable these new ways of working to continue long after one-time federal dollars are exhausted.

This brief highlights four key ways district leaders can sustain their new ESSER investments over time.

ESSER STRATEGY PLANNER & SPENDING CALCULATOR: District teams can use this open-source DIY tool to support decision-making. The tool helps teams prioritize investment strategies based on students’ needs, estimate the full cost of implementation beyond face value, and compare the sustainability implications of various potential investments.



This 90-second video can be used to help your system explain your efforts to invest your ESSER funds with a sustainable “Do Now, Build Toward” approach that targets underlying cost structures and better optimizes long-term costs. The accompanying brief shares specific investment examples from two of our leading CFO partners. 

District leaders need to collaborate with their state policymakers, labor unions, school board members, and local community representatives to create the conditions that enable strategic resource allocation. This will allow those resources to be used in ways that address some of the traditional underlying cost structures that can stifle a district’s ability to move toward stronger, more equitable approaches to teaching and learning. 

This table outlines examples of enabling conditions and the resource shifts they support for schedules, roles, and course requirements.
As district leaders plan the use of ESSER funding, state leaders can and should support policies that empower schools to effectively vary the time and attention students receive and help them meet students’ differing needs.


Regardless of the strategies districts invest in, we are unlikely to find “golden ticket” solutions that work immediately in standardized or scalable ways. Therefore, district teams will need to engage in cycles of continuous improvement, adjust for their unique local contexts, and adapt approaches over time based on community input and reliable data.

A behind-the-scenes look at how five districts are leveraging their ESSER dollars to “Do Now, Build Toward” and guidance to help districts and communities gauge how well their ESSER plans align with students’ needs and long-term sustainability.
This paper and sample dashboard examine how a whole-system approach to continuous improvement can help districts chart a course to better, more equitable teaching and learning, even during uncertainty.



After months of vision-setting, preparing COVID-recovery strategies, and carefully planning how to invest ESSER funds, school districts around the country are finding themselves up against new (and old) fires that feel like barriers to successful implementation — and there is widespread burnout and exhaustion. This dynamic has left many leaders feeling forced to leave behind their gardens — the important work of supporting the structures needed for schools, teachers, and students to thrive. Here we outline five actions to help your system be deliberate about both “fighting the fires” you need to fight, while still making progress toward your vision. 


Power Strategies

Invest in proven, high impact strategies


Five research-backed areas to focus planning and investments, including real-life “Do Now” examples from districts and schools across the country.


ESSER Strategy Planner & Spending Calculator

Plan spending for long term sustainability

An open-source DIY tool for district teams to select equitable investment priorities and size the full cost of implementing them. 


Schools Start Here

Design new scheduling & staffing models


A series of guides that provide a blueprint for how districts and schools can organize resources during the 2021-22 school year and beyond. 


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