Bemidji Pioneer

By Daltyn Lofstrom

Area superintendents met with U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, for a virtual discussion on Jan. 25 focusing on how the pandemic has continued to impact their schools.

Included on the call was Kelliher Public Schools Superintendent Paul Grams who highlighted several issues echoed by other leaders who were present.

Klobuchar started off, “we want to talk not about long-term COVID, but long-term challenges coming out of this. This includes staffing, lack of child care workers, student mental health, making more resources available on the school lunch front (and) broadband issues.”

Grams focused primarily on staffing challenges, the free and reduced lunch program and managing the coronavirus case count throughout the district.

“There’s a shortage in the workforce and it has hit everyone in many ways,” Grams said.

Highlighting the increasing need for teachers and bus drivers, Grams continued, “drivers are very critical. They’re hard to get and they keep increasing the requirements for bus driving licenses and that’s been a bit of a challenge.”

Rescue dollars

Klobuchar referenced several peaks in omicron cases placing strain on teachers and forcing some districts to return to virtual learning when schools become short-staffed.

“As omicron has reached its peak in some places, (addressing staffing issues) has always been a long-term focus,” Klobuchar added. “You’re probably using lots of substitute teachers and the like. The ESSER fund was one of the things we put out immediately and we’ve done a lot to help you through this.”

The ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund , was passed by Congress in March 2020 to set aside approximately $13.2 billion for schools across the nation to address impacts of the pandemic.

A supplemental ESSER funding stream was passed in December 2020 and provided an additional $54.3 billion.

The American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law in March 2021 and provided a third round of relief funding totaling $122 billion. These funds aimed to help school districts safely reopen and sustain safe operations in the midst of the pandemic.

Kelliher schools received approximately $95,000 in ESSER I, $341,000 in ESSER II and $767,000 in ARP funding.

Keeping lunches free

Keeping with the financial theme, Grams advocated for continuing the free lunch program for all students and reducing the burden on staff members as a result.

“We put so much time into having our secretaries call families when they need to put money into their kid’s lunch account,” Grams detailed. “Then there’s the time spent collecting the money, depositing and keeping track of it. In this day and age, it would be really nice to continue the free lunch program for kids and just let it be.”

Though Grams was unsure of the funding mechanism to continue free lunches, Klobuchar agreed that the free lunch program has been very popular and easier to track ever since the change from a percentage of students receiving free lunches to all students receiving them.

The Biden-Harris Administration approved $1.5 billion in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this past December to address supply chain disruptions brought on by the pandemic specifically for school meal programs.

$1 billion was allocated to help schools purchase food for their meal programs, $300 million for states to purchase USDA foods to distribute to schools and $200 million for cooperative agreements to purchase local foods from historically underused producers.

Minnesota received about $26.3 million split between these three allocations.

Situational struggles

Other superintendents spoke about their respective situations in terms of learning models, learning loss, enrollment and child care issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

Recognizing the value of in-person learning, Klobuchar mentioned, “A lot of districts in the state are back in person, which I think is the right thing to do. But, you have other schools that have to go remote here and there for short or longer periods of time and I know that’s been hard.”

Kelliher Schools has kept in-person instruction intact since the beginning of the school year. Social distancing, vaccines and face coverings are not required, though masks are required in school vehicles per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Students and staff are asked to conduct a daily health screening and enhanced cleaning procedures are still in place for the district.

With plans to continue supporting schools in their new normal in a bipartisan way, Klobuchar echoed the sentiments of Duluth Mayor Emily Larson in closing, “we can see the lighthouse on the horizon.”