As the coronavirus pandemic continues to hold its grip on the nation, there is good news this January for district and charter schools in Minnesota. A new round of federal stimulus funding and expanded state directives are signs of optimism for students, staff and parents.

But with the optimism comes a cautionary warning. Much work remains for public schools that continue to wrestle with students struggling with distance learning and declining enrollment.

While problems persist, there are reasons to be encouraged as Minnesotans await the vaccinations that will ultimately mean the defeat of COVID-19.

Under the new directives from Gov. Tim Walz, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education, elementary schools that are able to establish mitigation strategies may elect to operate an in-school model as of Jan. 18. High schools and middle schools will follow original protocols and guidelines set down in the state’s Safe Learning Plan to determine their learning model ­– either distance learning or a hybrid model. All students will need to wear masks and social distancing rules continue. On another positive, high school winter athletics resumed conditioning and practice sessions on Jan. 4 and competition has begun.

The directives come with requirements. School staff for in-person or hybrid learning models will be provided a new face shield and face mask which they will be required to wear at all times. School staff will be prioritized for optional COVID-19 testing every other week. District and charter schools will be required to ensure that all families have the option to choose distance learning for their student. Schools will also be required to allow teachers and school employees to work remotely due to health concerns to the extent possible.

Providing resources to district and charter schools is an issue. After months of delay in Washington, a new round of stimulus funding from the federal government will help. As part of the legislation, $84 billion has been allocated for schools. K-12 schools will receive $54 billion; higher education will receive $23 billion. Minnesota officials have been told they will be getting $529 million of those funds.

The federal legislation will provide funds to purchase cleaning supplies and plexiglass barriers, pay salaries for workers hired to help students with technology, provide free child care to children of front-line workers and expand support services for students who have fallen behind academically. Funding options to assist struggling students is especially important as the federal funding last spring did not address this need.

District and charter schools face a critical task in finding solutions to address the academic shortcoming that is resulting from distance learning. The long-term negative impact of the pandemic on student learning may be a problem for many years.

The new round of federal funding comes at an important time for all district and charter schools. Because of the pandemic, many districts are seeing enrollment numbers tumble as parents turn to home schooling or private schools. The loss of enrollment means fewer state aid dollars flowing to schools already feeling the pinch of 2020 pandemic-related expenses.

As the Legislature goes about setting a new two-year budget, the unexpected financial needs of schools must be considered. We’ve expected a lot from students, staff and parents in 2020. Now is not the time to penalize district and charter schools.

While there may be light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the community cannot become complacent. The success of schools safely delivering educational services will hinge on the behavior of the greater community in taking the steps to guard against spreading the virus.”

An editorial from the APG of East Central Minnesota Editorial Board. Reactions welcome. Send to: editorial.board@apgecm.com.

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