Schools across Steele County have been using their various pots of COVID-19 relief funds to help students, families and staff make it through the pandemic. Federal, state and local funds have allowed districts to purchase and be reimbursed for COVID-19 related expenses.
Minnesota schools requested $256 million from the $150 billion allocated by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act for state and local governments, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. A large portion of that, about $244.8 million, has gone to addressing operational costs and supporting students, families and educators needs.
The Owatonna school district received $1.4 million while the Medford and Blooming Prairie school districts received $232,181 and $187,930, respectively. While there are some guidelines and criteria for spending, Steele County schools are mostly using the funds to equip students for distance learning. The funds can be used until Dec. 30 and the Owatonna district has already spent its funds.
“Along with the additional expense of cleaning and disinfecting materials, as well as PPE and the additional technology that we had to purchase to pursue the way we have to do teaching now, it depleted those funds very quickly,” Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad said.
Amanda Heilman, the director of finance and operations for the Owatonna district, said the relief funds were spent on a number of items, including extra educational assistant staffing for hybrid learning, extra School Age Care staff for smaller student groups and district substitutes.
Technology updates were another major expense for the district. Owatonna has purchased Chromebooks, instructional supplies, hotspots and computer monitors to support hybrid and distance learning.
“We learned last spring that even though a number of families were able to find a device to use, this just allowed us some additional options with teaching to have everyone given a device,” Elstad said.
Other expenses include Bipolar Ionization Units for HVAC systems, personal protective equipment supplies and extra bussing costs as a result of the hybrid model restrictions causing an extra tier of bussing to be needed.
The Medford school district is also spending a good chunk of its money on technology, about $15,000 for laptops and $13,000 for iPads, Superintendent Mark Ristau said. The district has purchased additional monitors for teachers teaching in the hybrid model, dropping about $4,300 on those upgrades. Additionally, the district purchased hotspots to provide to families who don’t have Wi-fi.
“We are kind of coming up with criteria for who qualifies to get a hotspot and then we’ll get them the hotspot before (distance learning) begins,” Ristau said at Monday’s school board meeting. The school will continue to pay $28 per month to use the hotspots, which will be paid with CARES funds.
An auto scrubber, nursing supplies and payroll for extra staffing are among the other expenses.
On Monday, Ristau announced the district received $13,000 in COVID-19 relief funds from the city of Medford. The district had requested the amount to reimburse the schools for the purchase of additional technology for distance learning.
“It’s probably going to go towards laptops and some other devices for staff and students,” Ristau said, adding that they are looking at purchasing some additional monitors still.
At Monday’s Blooming Prairie School Board meeting, Superintendent Chris Staloch discussed said the district received about $29,500 from Steele County and $4,500 from Mower County.
“A lot of those funds are going towards technology enhancements,” Staloch said.
Technology upgrades are mainly targeted for the elementary school. Currently classrooms have Promethean interactive boards, but the district is switching to big screen TVs with an Apple TV Box and iPads. Staloch says the upgrade provides a more efficient way for teachers to communicate with students whether they’re in person or distance learning.
Westfield Township also donated $5,000 to the Blooming Prairie school district to update the HVAC system to improve the air quality.