Supporting Positive School Climate with ESSER and ARP Funds


As states continue navigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government allocated Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Programs (ESSER) and American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to local education agencies (LEAs) to respond to the emergent needs in schools and communities. The following information can serve as a guide for districts, community schools and stakeholders as they make local decisions regarding how to direct ESSER ARP funds to programs and initiatives to promote a positive school climate where all students feel safe and supported and thrive academically, socially and emotionally. 

Impact on Students 

The U.S. Department of Education emphasized supporting students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. ESSER ARP funds can be used to support school climate needs, specifically those worsened by the pandemic. Schools may need to support more students who are experiencing depression, bullying, social isolation, anxiety and loss of life as a result of the pandemic. Implementation of school climate initiatives throughout a school building can help students feel safe and supported, rebuild relationships with peers and teachers and create a positive community. 

Identifying the Needs and Building the Plan 

As a first step, LEAs can identify needs using the One Needs Assessment. Districts can then build a plan with a broad range of stakeholders as part of the ED STEPS process. As part of the planning process, LEAs are encouraged to analyze local data to help identify existing gaps in creating and promoting a positive school climate. Districts may also use school climate survey instruments and analyze student-level data and staff data to help guide the plan. 

General Funding Considerations and Practical Advice 

The ESSER ARP funds are one-time investments that should be managed carefully. These funds generally should not be used to provide ongoing services, as services may be terminated abruptly when federal funds expire. Rather, funds should be used for one-time or short-duration intensive supports that address the impacts of education disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic or that build the capacity of the education system to operate effectively or meaningfully for students. More information on using these federal funds may be found in the comprehensive ESSER ARP guidance created by the Ohio Department of Education.  

In general, when determining strategies to spend the ESSER I, ESSER II and ESSER ARP funds, the LEAs should consider the following five questions:  

  1. Will the proposed use of funds prevent, prepare for and respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic?  
  2. Is this an allowable use of funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) or ARP? Click here for a broad list of ESSER ARP allowable uses
  3. Is it reasonable and necessary?  
  4. Does it promote equity?  
  5. Does it support returning students to the classroom? 

Strategies for Funding Supports for Positive School Climate  

In conjunction with addressing the five questions noted above, the LEA may use ESSER ARP funds broadly to support the development of a positive school climate in response to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. A positive school climate helps everyone feel safe, engaged, supported and connected to the school, which is critical for student success when returning to the classroom. Districts determine school climate through implementation of policies and practices that prevent challenging issues, address the impact of trauma on a student and help adults respond more effectively when issues arise. Below are examples of how LEAs can respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and direct their funds to address the needs critical to the overall well-being of students in Ohio schools.  

  • Cultivate positive relationships among students and school staff. The relationships between students and staff in a school are one of the defining aspects of school climate and have importance when returning students to the classroom. To foster positive student-staff relationships, schools can proactively address any barriers that may prevent building trust and caring relationships. Invest in trainings that support staff understanding of various students' backgrounds and personal experiences. 
  • ​Regularly use data to assess the needs of students and staff by implementing surveys, analyzing student level data and staff data. There are several instruments schools can use to assess school climate. School climate surveys assess students’ perception of safety, support and positive relationships. Screeners or assessments can be used to determine student risk factors or student wellness needs. Use a data platform that supports student data by demographics. Purchase programs, curricula, supports or tools that support the needs identified in the data. 
  • Partner and collaborate with families to create continuity between the home and learning environment. Hold events that are culturally responsive, welcome families into the school community and utilize family surveys to better understand the specific needs of families and their students. Encourage family engagement and provide a family resource navigator or family liaison to support students beyond their basic needs.  
  • ​Social and emotional learning (SEL) builds stronger, more empathetic relationships and become more engaged at school, which promotes an overall positive school climate to support returning students to the classroom. The Ohio Department of Education’s SEL competencies include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. School staff should model the competencies to reinforce students’ learning. Schools and districts should be mindful of the social and emotional health and competence of students and staff. Students and staff alike are impacted by the pandemic, and social and emotional competence may increase resilience. SEL intervention is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather it requires responding to the specific needs of students, staff and families. 
  • Engage students in different forms of leadership to address problems. Student voice is an important component of any school climate improvement work. Students are experts on the school environment in ways adults often are not. Districts can use funds to invest in student groups to create curious learners that can, listen to and engage in respectful discourse to foster a stronger voice. Schools can partner with community organizations and pay a fee for services to facilitate student peer-to-peer groups or student leadership training. Through groups and activities like these students can: hold events that include students whose voices are seldom heard; help teachers, administrators and student support staff understand issues in new ways; demonstrate leadership by teaching and mentoring others; provide visual storytelling or participate in school and community volunteerism. When students are active partners in naming problems and generating and helping to implement solutions, they have a sense of belonging, become more engaged and develop stronger relationships with peers and adults at school.  
  • Increase professional development opportunities for staff. Survey staff on their professional development, training, mentoring and coaching needs to support returning students to the classroom. Utilize school climate, social-emotional skills and family engagement surveys to identify professional development needs. Provide professional development and ongoing training for staff to recognize and support the whole child including trauma-informed practices, mental health, SEL and prevention education. Implement positive behavioral interventions and supports with fidelity. Fund professional development that facilitates integrating culturally responsive practices into curriculum and behavior practices. Increase positive relationships among students and between students and staff and strengthen school safety by implementing restorative practices and funding training for professional development and coaching for staff. School staff can contact their local Educational Service Center or County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health (ADAMH) Board for professional development training.  
  • Provide behavioral health support and interventions to develop a tiered system of behavioral health services and more collaboration between behavioral health providers to support students returning to the classroom. Schools can work with community behavioral health organizations to address students’ behavioral health needs and provide evidence-based programs and practices through a three-tiered approach. Community agencies can provide individual and group therapy to respond to increasing environmental stressors and trauma related to the pandemic. 
  • Implement evidence-based practices and programs in the positive behavioral interventions and supports framework to address violence prevention, anti-bullying, responsible use of social media, substance use prevention, suicide prevention and maintaining healthy relationships. Addressing school issues through evidence-based prevention or intervention practices, programs and wrap-around services raises awareness, increases knowledge, develops skills to prevent risky behaviors, provides adult support and promotes positive behavioral health outcomes for students as they return to the classroom. Evidence-based practices and programs can be found at Blueprints for Healthy Youth DevelopmentWhat Works Clearinghouse. ​
  • ​Incorporate trauma-informed practices to support students, staff and families that have experienced trauma during the pandemic. A trauma-informed school is one in which all students and staff feel safe, welcomed and supported and where the impact of trauma on teaching and learning is addressed at the center of the educational mission. Trauma-informed schools create school policies, practices and cultures that are sensitive to the needs of traumatized individuals and ensure that all individuals (students, families and staff) meet their maximum potential. It is imperative for educators to be aware of the impact of trauma within the academic setting and to work with mental health professionals such as social workers and psychologists to implement strategies for addressing trauma in students.  
  • Provide staff wellness programs to improve staff wellness, morale and retention. Use behavioral health partners to assess staff needs and provide staff wellness programs. Offer additional mentoring for teachers and connect them with appropriate professional supports. Recognize and acknowledge the impact of secondary trauma on staff when returning students to the classroom and provide professional development and wellness programs.The Wellness Project offers practices to support staff wellness.

Special note: LEAs should expect significant oversight by state and federal auditors on the spending of their ESSER ARP funds. The LEAs should have a written explanation of how the expenditure using these ESSER ARP funds was made to prevent, prepare for and respond to the pandemic. It is important that the LEA maintain documentation and be able to provide evidence that demonstrates compliance with the allowable uses of these federal resources.  

Additional Resources to Support Positive School Climate  

  • Creating Caring Communities webpage provides resources to support the school environment.  
  • Student and Staff Wellbeing webpage includes information about student and staff wellness, which is necessary to creating a positive school climate.  
  • is a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address bullying behavior. 
  • Anti-Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Resources webpage can be used by administrators and local board members to ensure their district has an effective policy and related practices. 
  • Safety and Violence Prevention Training is required for K-12 school employees, allowing them to be trained in the promotion of positive youth development and the prevention of child abuse, violence and substance abuse. 
  • Trauma-Informed Schools webpage is a resource for administrators which includes helpful information on how to ensure all students and staff feel safe, welcomed and supported and where the impact of trauma on teaching and learning is addressed at the center of the educational mission. 
  • Safety and Violence Education Students (SAVE Students) Act outlines the emotional and physical safety requirements that create safe and supportive environments in Ohio schools. 
  • Building Better Learning Environments webpage contains resources to help shape the culture of a school community.  

For questions or more information, please contact

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Last Modified: 8/16/2023 7:34:36 AM