By Hannah Shirley

The mental health of students and teachers, free and reduced lunches, and the possibility of distance learning into the next school year were at the top of local school leaders' concerns in a conversation with Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Wednesday, March 31.

Klobuchar met in a conference call with the superintendents of four northwest Minnesota school districts — East Grand Forks Public Schools, Stephen/Argyle Central School District, Park Rapids Area Schools and Greenbush Middle River School District — to discuss how the districts have fared during the pandemic, as well as their concerns going forward. The intent was to help guide Klobuchar's legislative priorities in Washington.

The discussion was expected to cover distance learning, high-speed internet, nutrition and mental health, according to a media advisory. But other topics arose and seemed to take the senator by surprise, particularly a concern raised by East Grand Forks Superintendent Mike Kolness, who worries some students who have found they thrive in a virtual setting may depart from the district next year in favor of a virtual academy.

"I get asked this question probably daily about are we going to have to continue with distance learning next year," Kolness said. "And that's a big question for families and educators and, whether it be mandated by state or federal government or just by the loss of students, if we don't provide that service and we have 100 students still want to participate in distance learning, we're going to lose those students to a virtual academy somewhere. That's concerning."

There are approximately 2,000 students in the East Grand Forks district, Kolness said, and the district transitioned back to full-time in-person learning for all students after middle and high school students spent the first semester in a hybrid learning model. However, he estimates there are still about 150 students who have opted to remain in a full-time distance learning program.

A decline in the student population could bring financial impacts to the school district, as some state and federal funding is based on student enrollment. This semester, East Grand Forks schools already reported their lowest enrollment numbers in several years.

Each superintendent also expressed a hope that the free and reduced lunch program, which was opened to all students regardless of eligibility during the pandemic, will continue after COVID-19 subsides. Superintendent Larry Guggisberg of the Greenbush Middle River School District said that after nearly a year and a half of having the option of free hot meals for students, many families have come to expect or rely on the program. He said that if certain eligibility requirements are reinstated, there would likely be some "fussing."

"The free meals helps families, there's no question about it," he said. "There is an element of working poor, and free meals helps families out a little bit. I think a continuation of that would be important."

The superintendents also brought up the issues of rural internet access, which is still limited in many areas of northwest Minnesota, and of mental health, which impacted every level of the school communities during the pandemic.

Kolness said that the East Grand Forks district has hired mental health professionals in the last year, and hopes to continue to expand the district's mental health staff in the upcoming year. Lance Bagstad, superintendent of Park Rapids Area Schools, worried about hiring additional help when the district has struggled to fill vacant mental health staff positions.

Klobuchar told the superintendents that she recently spoke with U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona about the importance of returning children to classrooms, and that she has worked on bills addressing broadband funding to close the "homework gap," students' mental health and substance abuse, and providing schools with technical assistance to meet training standards, particularly in smaller school districts.

Minnesota has been allocated $1.3 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund through the recently passed American Rescue Plan, she said. Now, with the unveiling this week of President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan, Klobuchar said she plans to eye how funding in that proposal could be used to help northwestern Minnesota schools.

"It really does help me to do my work when I can get your on-the-ground view of exactly what's happening," she said.