Nebraska K-12 school districts, colleges and universities will split a $128 million federal care package to deal with the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, with a good chunk of the money aimed at helping college students.
How the money for students will be allocated is uncertain.
The law gives local and state education leaders latitude on allocating and spending the aid.
One Nebraska state official has cautioned school district leaders against using the extra money for pay raises during the crisis.
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act will provide $60.8 million to Nebraska school districts to cover expenses related to the pandemic.
The Omaha Public Schools will get almost $24.1 million. It appears the money could be used for anything from meal planning to computers for distance learning to training for the eventual reopening of schools. OPS receives the largest share among Nebraska’s districts. The amount of money districts are getting is tied to the amount of federal Title I money they normally receive.
The Lincoln Public Schools is slated to get $7.5 million.
The Millard Public Schools will receive $1.8 million.
The act also provides more than $67.2 million for 38 Nebraska colleges and universities. At least half of that money must be used for emergency financial aid grants to students whose education was disrupted.
The University of Nebraska system will receive about $31.6 million for its four campuses: Lincoln, Omaha, Kearney and the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Half of the money must go to students.
Nebraska’s state colleges — Chadron, Peru and Wayne — will receive a total of about $4.4 million.
Community colleges — Central, Metropolitan, Mid-Plains, Southeast and Western Nebraska — are slated to receive about $15.3 million.
Creighton University will receive nearly $3.2 million.
“It’s pretty clear we need to get those funds into students’ hands as quickly as we can,” said Chris Kabourek, vice president and chief financial officer of the University of Nebraska.
Just how that will happen, and which students will get the money, is not clear.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in a letter Thursday to college and university presidents, said the money should aid college students whose lives were disrupted and are facing financial challenges and struggling to make ends meet.
She wrote that the act gives universities and colleges significant discretion on how to award the money to students.
The money can be awarded to all students, or to only those with significant need, she wrote.
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The only statutory restriction, she wrote, is that the money cover costs from the disruption.
DeVos said that could include food, housing, course materials, technology, health care and child care.
She encouraged colleges to allocate aid to students with the greatest need and suggested the awards be capped at $6,195, which is the federal Pell Grant threshold.
Local K-12 officials appear to have significant leeway on how to spend the money.
For K-12 schools, it could mean purchasing computers and online materials for distance learning while schools are closed, but spokespersons for the Millard and Omaha districts said it’s too early to say how their districts would spend it.
State Sen. Mike Groene, the Education Committee chair of the Nebraska Legislature, cautioned school officials about taking advantage of the aid during a crisis.
“This is not the time for local elected boards to be passing out pay raises, benefit increases or adding programs,” he said.
He said the money should be used for property tax relief.
With school buildings and buses idle, activities and travel canceled and teachers working from home, districts should be spending less money now, he said. That savings, he said, could help offset next year’s budget.
A spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Education said officials expect to receive guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on what the K-12 money can be spent on.
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in a statement, said Friday that the law was structured to give spending flexibility to local school leaders.
“We want these resources to meet local needs and, for a lot of students, that’s going to mean software and technology,” Sasse said.
Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said President Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress have given locally elected school boards needed latitude to decide how to use the funds.
“The funds are to be used to support and ensure the safety and education of children — and there is a list of permissible uses to which our local school boards must adhere,” Benson said.
According to Benson, the money can cover a variety of costs, including the planning for school closures, cleaning and sanitizing facilities and training staff on how to ensure buildings are safe for the return of students. It can be used for purchasing educational technology, planning for online learning and how to support and serve special needs students, she said.
The distribution of aid for other metro Omaha school districts is as follows: Elkhorn, $127,000; Douglas County West, $98,400; Ralston, $523,000; Bennington, $75,600; Westside, $491,500; Bellevue, $774,000; Papillion La Vista, $386,400; Gretna, $123,200; Springfield Platteview, $53,500.