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From iPads to floor tape: How Minnesota schools are putting federal CARES Act dollars to use

Minnesota schools have received access to three main buckets of federal funding to help get students back to school safely.

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Minnesota schools have received access to three main buckets of federal funding to help get students back to school safely.
Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Minnesota schools have received access to three main buckets of federal funding to help get students back to school safely.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

As schools across the state put their new school plans to test this month, administrative teams are busy tallying up all pandemic-related expenses. Heading into a school year marked by uncertainty and increased responsibility, they have to make the most of federal funding that’s been allocated to help them forge ahead during a pandemic.  

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Minnesota schools have received access to three main buckets of federal funding to help get students back to school safely. That includes $244.8 million via the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), $38 million via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, and $140.1 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) aid.

Each comes with its own parameters of allowable uses and timeline. The bulk of these dollars are allocated on a per pupil basis, with some priority given to low-income students. And while the amounts available are largely non-competitive, school leaders must still submit a budget application to the Minnesota Department of Education for approval in order to access their funds.

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As of Wednesday, the state Department of Education reports that only $111 million in applications, across all three buckets of funds, had been approved. Since there’s a tighter deadline for CRF funds — in which applications must be signed and approved by Oct. 1, with funds spent by Dec. 30 — the bulk of applications received to date fall into this category. 

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson
State lawmakers leading education finance committees in both the House and Senate say they don’t expect to see any of these funds go untapped. The other two buckets of federal funding — GEER and ESSER dollars — both have a longer lifespan, as they can be spent through Sept. 30, 2022. 

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chair of the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy committee, says schools’ focus right now is likely on kicking off the school year successfully. “I anticipate that our schools will fully use and maximize the federal funds that have been directed their way,” she said.

State Rep. Jim Davnie
State Rep. Jim Davnie
Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the House Education Finance Division, also suspects any delay in fund distribution can be attributed to the fact that schools are preoccupied with “an overwhelming start to the school year.” But those budgets, once submitted, will include things like added bussing expenses, personal protective equipment and plexiglass.

As schools continue to figure out how to best put their CARES dollars to use, here’s an initial look at how five Minnesota districts that have already submitted at least one budget for approval are putting their federal CARES Act dollars to use. 

Investing in technology and safety measures

By the end of last week, the Minnesota Department of Education had only approved about $9 million in budget applications submitted across all three buckets of funding. Breaking that amount down into eight categories, about 46 percent of budgeted items fell into the “technology” category. Expenses in the “instructional support” and “operating” categories made up another 41 percent of that amount, with the remainder falling under the following categories: transportation, nursing, non-instructional support, contracts and other. 

Superintendent Joey Page
Superintendent Joey Page
That breakdown is fairly representative of the COVID-19 response expenses in the Byron Public Schools district. Superintendent Joey Page says they’ve already submitted applications for all three buckets of funding for approval. Located in southeastern Minnesota, spanning Olmsted and Dodge counties, the district currently has all preK to fifth-grade students doing in-person learning, with students in grades six to 12 doing hybrid learning. 

His district is investing a lot in technology — things like purchasing iPads for all elementary students, to expand their device-to-student ratio, purchasing additional hot spots for distribution to students in need of internet access while learning from home, and investing in Wi-Fi capabilities for any outdoor instruction as they try to “take advantage of, hopefully, a long fall,” Page said. 

The bulk of the district’s COVID-19 response expense fell under the operational category. That includes everything from additional cleaning equipment, HVAC filters and reprogramming costs for ventilation and filtration systems to plexiglass barriers added in common areas like the main office and the media center, along with social-distancing signage and reminders in the form of posters, stickers and floor decals. 

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They did not have to invest any additional dollars into busing, since a lot of their families ended up opting to drive their kids to and from school, especially at the elementary level, he said. And they’re working any new professional development needs into existing staff development days. 

Superintendent Jon Kringen
Superintendent Jon Kringen
In the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle School District, CARES Act dollars largely helped cover added technology and operating expenses, says Superintendent Jon Kringen. The north-central district, spanning Todd, Morrison and Stearns counties, has all students (preK to 12) doing in-person learning, with the exception of those families that opted to enroll in distance learning only. 

The district spent about a third of its CARES Act allocations on refurbishing its Chromebooks and purchasing hot spots for students, he said. It also includes the added expense of a contract with a vendor that’s providing an online learning platform and curriculum for the 40 or so students that opted to enroll in distance learning only this fall. 

“It’d be very difficult for our teachers to have in-person and online,” he said, adding that spotty internet connections in the area further complicate the do-it-yourself distance learning model that his teachers grappled with last spring. 

Another large chunk of that funding helped cover basic instructional supplies — including personal protective equipment, sanitizers, floor markings, replacing all tables with desks to allow for better social distancing in classrooms and purchasing duplicates of classroom items that would, under normal circumstances, be shared among students. “That actually came to a much higher total than I thought it’d be,” he said of the instructional supply list. 

His district also invested in staffing, adding a nurse’s aide for one year and staffing classrooms with monitors in instances where the teacher needed to instruct from home. 

‘Short of our need’

Windom Area School Superintendent Wayne Wormstadt says they’ve already found a use for all of their GEER, ESSER and CRF funds this school year — and they still have a significant budgetary gap, created by the added costs of doing in-person instruction during a pandemic, that they’ll need to fill by drawing down district reserves.

The state’s online learning mode portal shows this southwestern district, spanning the Cottonwood and Jackson counties, is using a combination of in-person and hybrid learning, across all grade levels. As of Wednesday, Wormstadt says all students are actually in-person, just very spread out to achieve proper social distancing. 

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Logistically, they had the benefit of a spacious new elementary school — albeit furnished with tables to promote collaborative learning that had to be put into storage for the time being, and replaced with alternative seating options — that helped make this plan possible. But they still had to hire four new teachers in order to reduce class sizes and add to their custodial team as well. 

Superintendent Wayne Wormstadt
Superintendent Wayne Wormstadt
Those new hires are covered, in part, by federal aid. But after totaling up all of the additional COVID-19 related expenses — for things like iPads for elementary students to achieve a 1:1 ratio, adding a bus route, covering payroll for staff who planned for this school year over the summer, and all PPE and disinfectant supplies  — Wormstadt says they’ve already allocated about $100,000 from their general fund to bridge the gap this school year. And they anticipate they’ll need to pull another $100,00, at a minimum, to sustain their school model through the end of the year.

“We’re grateful for the funding we received for this. Even though it’s short of our need, it does help,” he said. “The timeline is tight, but we had a pretty good roadmap to our plan by the time the governor spoke  — so we were able to move forward very quickly.”

As in other districts, technology needs came with a significant price tag. The Windom district plans on using federal aid to cover iPad purchases to achieve a 1:1 ratio at the elementary level, to help cover internet services and connection fees for students learning from home, and to purchase new online learning tools — apps like EdPuzzle, Screencastify and Pear Deck — to assist teachers in any hybrid or distance learning setting. 

Large districts, larger spreadsheets

The state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin schools, plans to allocate $10.4 million in CRF funds to cover the sorts of technology items, PPE and safety materials already mentioned above. The district is also looking to purchase an ionization system for all schools — for about $3.5 million — that “basically eliminates virus particles through an HVAC system improvement,” district spokesperson Jim Skelly wrote in an email. 

A closer look at a spreadsheet of CRF federal fund planning provided by the district shows the next three largest investments include: child care, Chromebooks, long-term subs and paraprofessionals. They’ve also budgeted for technology tools like GoGuardian, EdPuzzles and Google Meet Premium, to assist with a more polished online instructional delivery this fall and beyond. By Sept. 28, the district plans to have phased all students into a hybrid model. 

The spreadsheet also offers a comprehensive look at the sorts of PPE districts are investing in: face shields and masks, red vinyl floor tape, clear window face masks, lanyards, microfiber towels, hand sanitizers, ear mask hooks, and even puppy pads for “spit valve release” supplies for band students.

The district has not used any of its available GEER or ESSER funds to date, says Skelly. Due to the tighter deadline placed on CRF funds, the district prioritized getting that budget approved and then spending those dollars. 

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The St. Paul Public Schools district has taken a similar approach — racing to get a CRF budget pieced together ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline and spent by the end of December, so as to not lose out on any available federal aid. Marie Schurl, the district’s chief financial officer, says the state just approved their CRF budget on Tuesday. She’ll pivot back to working on GEER and ESSER applications next, but those two budgets got shelved — and disassembled, to a certain extent — once the CRF aid came through with tighter deadlines. 

The district was fortunate in that it didn’t need to invest heavily in purchasing devices for students, as it already had implemented a personalized learning iPad initiative prior to the pandemic, she said. But technology needs still added up quickly, for things like hotspots and internet service plans, added online learning platform tools and additional iPads for preK and special education students. 

The district started out the year in a distance learning model for all students. But as district leaders plan for a potential transition to hybrid learning, that means budgeting for additional sanitation supplies, busing routes, custodial staff and PPE across more than 100 buildings, districtwide, Schurl said. 

In a diverse district, serving students who are learning English and whose parents may not speak English, expenses like a language line and added translation services have also been factored into the district’s CRF budget. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge in managing so many different streams of funding, Schurl says, comes down to finding creative ways to piece together various funding streams — constrained by various spending windows — to cover ongoing costs like internet plans and extra staffing. 

“If you hire staffing now, you have to be mindful of sustainability in the other funding sources you have,” she said. “It’s challenging — that’s for sure.”