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Better than nothing

Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds provide a treatment, but not a cure for schools’ COVID-19 budgetary ailments

JOHNSON COUNTY– Iowa’s school districts have been scrambling to continue to provide distance-learning opportunities to their students since Gov. Kim Reynolds closed the state’s schools on March 15 in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The initial four-week closure was extended to May 1 before cancelling the remainder of the school year on April 17. As part of her cancellation announcement, Reynolds stated “Districts will be required to continue to provide continuous learning opportunities for their students through the end of the school year.” Part of the effort to provide that continuous learning has included districts providing hardware such as wireless hotspots and other technology assistance to families without Internet access.
With the costs of providing these additional and unplanned services, impacting the districts’ budgets, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) is providing approximately $13.2 billion to the Education Stabilization Fund for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund). The money is being distributed to state educational agencies to provide emergency funds to school districts to help mitigate the financial impact of dealing with the pandemic.
Ann Lebo, the Director of the Iowa Department of Education announced the emergency funding stream during Gov. Reynolds’ daily press briefing on Tuesday, May 5.
The state received $71.6 million, Lebo said, noting “Every one of Iowa’s 327 (public) school districts will receive an allocation of these funds to address COVID-19 related needs at their schools, including online learning support, professional development, educational technology, mental health services, and services to support students with disabilities.” Districts were supposed to receive their allocation on Wednesday, May 13, with the amount based on each school’s Title I, Part A funding. Title I, Part A provides monetary assistance to local educational agencies and schools with high percentages of students from low-income families.
Locally the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) Community School District will receive $102,929, the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) will receive $1,600,395, Solon will receive $14,889, Williamsburg will receive $58,622, and the College Community School District will receive $366,298.
State Representative Dave Jacoby (D-74) put out an email on Wednesday, May 6, clarifying the use of the funds, including a must use-by date of Sept. 30, 2022.
“This is for costs related to the COVID-19 outbreak retroactive until March 13, 2020. General rule is that they cannot be used to replace funds in an account. It should be used for actual costs related to COVID-19,” Jacoby wrote.
ICCSD’s outgoing Superintendent, Steve Murley, and CCA Superintendent Tim Kuehl were asked about how their districts intend to use this funding.
“The simple answer is that we have far more qualifying expenses than the dollars provided to us by the CARES Act,” said Murley. He pointed out there was a question of what costs already incurred the district will be able to recover through the CARES funding, “knowing that there are not enough available funds to cover all the money we have already spent.” He added “I have no doubt that we have more than $1.4 million in unplanned school expenses in the next four months before the next school year starts.”
Examples of what CARES dollars can be spent on, relevant to the COVID-19 crisis, include technology assistance (computers, Wi-Fi access, etc.), food, supplies, mobile meal site related expenses and curricular support such as workbooks, Murley said.
“We are considering which past or future expenses to target these dollars to support.” As an example, he said, the ICCSD is currently 1:1 (one computer/tablet per student) in grades 7-12, and is contemplating going 1:1 for all grade levels. “If we were to go in this direction, we anticipate that this could cost as much as $800,000. The CARES dollars would be able to cover such an expense. We are also looking at increased use of take-home materials for students (books and workbooks) and again the CARES dollars would go a long way toward meeting that need.”
At CCA, Kuehl said the district would apply the money to technology purchases they’ve made in order to facilitate distance learning, as well as expenses for the free food service program. “That’s going to use up the vast majority of our allocation. We plan to try and set some aside heading into next year to help in the event that there are further pandemic issues.” Going forward, Kuehl said, “I wonder about more technology, as well as things like increased costs for Extended School Year services. Into next year, I worry that we might be forced to go on a schedule that has students in for half days, possibly doubling bus routes.”
“Don’t get me wrong… I am grateful for whatever the federal government can provide to us,” Murley said. “As I said earlier, we have far more expenses than the CARES dollars will support.”