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Historic federal funding boost to help Nebraska schools, universities cope with COVID

Historic federal funding boost to help Nebraska schools, universities cope with COVID

Dr. Gary Anthone discusses the current treatments for coronavirus.

A historic federal appropriation is headed to Nebraska’s K-12 schools for COVID-19 relief, and local district officials will have few restrictions on how to spend it.

The $243 million allocation is believed to be the single biggest emergency federal appropriation the state has ever received for K-12 schools. It’s four times what the CARES Act provided schools last spring and $10 million more than schools got in the recession-fighting stimulus package of 2009.

The big question is how will Nebraska school officials spend it.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt said the money could be the only federal money schools receive to address the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic.

He said he will encourage local school officials to be thoughtful about using it.

The president of the Nebraska state teachers union suggested one use for the money could be to compensate teachers for their extra work during the pandemic.

The money will be distributed to local districts based on their percentage of children from low-income families, so high-poverty districts will get the most money.

The Omaha Public Schools should receive a substantial allocation.

The money is part of an $81.9 billion Education Stabilization Fund Congress created for the nation’s public and nonpublic K-12 schools and higher-education institutions. The fund, included in the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill passed in December, is broken down nationally this way: $54.3 billion for public K-12 schools, $22.7 billion for higher education and $4.1 billion that governors can distribute, with $2.75 billion of that earmarked for nonpublic schools.

Nebraska colleges and universities stand to receive in excess of $118 million, according to an analysis by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities.

It’s anticipated that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will receive $24.1 million, the University of Nebraska at Omaha $17.9 million, the University of Nebraska at Kearney $6.7 million and the University of Nebraska Medical Center $1.8 million.

Officials from all the campuses are in the early process of determining how they would spend it, said spokeswoman Melissa Lee.

Broadly, it would be spent for such things as replacing lost revenue associated with the pandemic, costs associated with online education and student financial aid, she said.

Nebraska will receive $24.4 million for the governor’s distribution, with $17.3 million of that for emergency assistance to nonpublic schools.

At the K-12 level, the money is intended to help schools reopen, stay open and recover from the pandemic, but the language Congress put in the act is so broad that schools can spend it on just about anything related to education.

That could include things like buying a new HVAC unit to clean up the air in a school, implementing meal programs or remote-learning programs, purchasing computer hardware and software, providing mental health services, buying cleaning and sanitizing supplies, or testing kids’ learning loss.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in a letter to state leaders before she resigned last week, said the money will “help keep learning going and will hopefully take excuses off the table for schools that remain closed.”

Some of the nation’s districts remain in full remote, but Nebraska’s schools are largely already open for in-person or hybrid learning. The push here could be to address learning loss students have experienced because of COVID-19 disruptions and the ineffectiveness of remote learning. That could mean anything from tutoring to summer school or extending the school year to catch up kids who struggled or failed during the crisis.

Language in the bill appears to prohibit state officials from doing what they did with stimulus money about a decade ago, when they pumped the federal money into the state aid formula, so the state didn’t have to spend as much of its own money.

Blomstedt said his department will be offering local officials guidance on spending the federal money.

He said the job of catching kids up will be labor intensive, and he expects the money could pay existing staff as well as supplemental hires to help students recover academically.

He anticipates that some districts might ask teachers if they are willing to enter into an 11- or 12-month contract instead of the typical nine-month to work extra to catch kids up, he said.

“I’m a little worried that you get to the summer and the workforce says, ‘I need the summer off, personally, to recover,’” Blomstedt said. “In light of that, I think there probably will need to be some other strategies we think about.”

He said schools might tap college students to provide tutoring.

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said some of the money could go to compensate teachers who she said have been working extended hours under stressful conditions since the pandemic hit.

Benson said district officials should follow the lead of the Millard Public Schools, which gave teachers extra pay last month.

She said the federal money could go for technology to ensure broadband access for students and teachers.

Other possibilities could be training teachers, addressing students’ nutritional needs or providing mental health, behavioral and social-emotional support for students.

Students’ mental health has always been a concern for educators, but the pandemic has crystalized that critical need, she said.

“I’ve heard that from parents, teachers and students,” she said.

Our best Omaha staff photos of 2020, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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