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OPS will receive $86.4 million in federal COVID relief money

OPS will receive $86.4 million in federal COVID relief money

Vinnie Shields is a kindergartner at J.P. Lord, an OPS school for students with multiple disabilities, but isn’t able to be in class because of the coronavirus.

The Omaha Public Schools will receive $86.4 million through the federal COVID-19 relief package passed last month.

That’s about $1,600 per student. District officials anticipate using it to address learning loss caused by school disruptions and ineffective remote learning during the pandemic.

The money comes from the new $81.9 billion Education Stabilization Fund for the nation’s K-12 schools and higher education institutions. The Nebraska Department of Education received a total of $243 million for distribution to the state’s school districts.

OPS’s share is big — about 35% of the state total — because it is Nebraska’s largest district and the distribution formula is based on each district’s number of students from low-income families.

More than three-quarters of the 51,900 OPS students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunches based on their families’ income, according to the Education Department.

The Lincoln Public Schools will receive $27.37 million, and the Millard Public Schools will get $6.32 million.

For other Omaha-area school districts, the distribution is as follows: Bellevue, $2.84 million; Ralston, $1.78 million; Westside, $1.69 million; Papillion La Vista, $1.31 million; Gretna, $453,018; Elkhorn, $399,554; Douglas County West, $330,502; Bennington, $277,810; and Springfield Platteview, $196,501.

Congress created the fund as part of a $900 billion coronavirus relief bill passed in December and signed by then-President Donald Trump. Lawmakers attached few strings to the money, so districts have wide latitude in spending it.

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 heating, ventilation and air conditioning unit to clean up the air, 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.

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

Because Nebraska schools are largely already open for in-person learning, the money here will likely be targeted to helping students recover from learning losses.

Some districts are already laying plans to expand their credit recovery efforts and catch up kids through tutoring and after-school and summer school programs. Those extra sessions will require paying existing teachers or hiring supplemental staff.

OPS spokeswoman Bridget Blevins said officials are still working out details of how the money will be used.

She said officials anticipate that it will be used to pay for a multiyear academic recovery plan to address learning loss.

LPS spokeswoman Mindy Burbach said district officials are still developing their plans, as well.

But the district has already said it will use federal relief money to provide a separate remote learning program next school year for families still concerned about students returning to buildings.

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

The law allows officials in the State Education Department to withhold up to 10% for its own use.

The department is holding back $24.3 million and will distribute the remaining $218.8 million to districts. Not all Nebraska districts will receive money.

There is also a separate federal appropriation that governors can use to support non-public schools. Nebraska will receive $24.4 million for the governor’s distribution, with $17.3 million of that for emergency assistance to non-public schools.

Our best Omaha staff photos of January 2021, 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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