by ALEXANDRA RETTER
While facing a deficit and staffing reductions, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS)is also expecting to receive millions of dollars in federal COVID relief funding, and WAPS officials are delving into how to use that money.
WAPS Board members will likely consider approving a three-year plan for using about $3.67 million in federal COVID relief, or ESSER, funding in August or September, Superintendent Annette Freiheit said. Community members will have an opportunity to comment on the plan at that time, as well, she said.
WAPS leaders are developing the plan now. The deadline for submitting it to the state following School Board approval and a public comment opportunity is October 1.
It is unclear when WAPS would receive the funding. It is difficult to say how quickly the state might approve the plan, Freiheit said. She added that if WAPS completes its plan earlier than not, she anticipates the district would be able to access the funding sooner.
At recent meetings, Freiheit said she would like to put ESSER funding toward students’ academics and social-emotional health, in addition to student and family engagement. She also said she would like to provide as much support for students as possible, as quickly as possible, to address the learning they missed during the pandemic. As it might take time for the district to receive the most recent funding, Freiheit said WAPS plans to focus on using remaining previous COVID relief funding at the start of the next school year to provide that support.
Additionally, the state legislature is finalizing its guidelines for how the most recent funding may be used. Freiheit said she expects to learn what is in that guidance once the special legislative session is over. In the meantime, the district has some guidance from the federal government, Freiheit said. Under that guidance, 20 percent of the funding must go toward unfinished learning, and broad categories of ways in which the funding may be used include student academics and mental health supports.
Earlier this spring, a WAPS committee recommended hiring cultural liaisons to support students and families of color; starting support groups or clubs for high school students who are Black, Latinx or Asian American; beginning support groups that cover subjects including suicide prevention, depression, grief and device; implementing a mental health screening tool; and improving the process for referring students for mental health services. Freiheit said she would like to fund some of those recommendations with the new ESSER funds. “This has given us an opportunity to pilot and ensure the impact of them,” she said. She continued that she couldn’t yet answer about the specific recommendations she would hope to include in the plan, with it still being developed.
The public would have a chance to weigh in on the plan through an electronic survey, public comments at School Board meetings and a public hearing, possibly, Freiheit said.
The district has about $145,000 in previous COVID relief funding that it is still using and approximately $1.63 million that it would like to focus on using in the 2021-2022 school year and summer 2022. Freiheit said the district’s goal is to use all prior funding before starting to use the most recent funding.
What can the funding sustain?
At School Board meetings and a June 10 Finance Committee meeting, School Board Chair Nancy Denzer voiced her concerns about the sustainability of any programs or positions funded with ESSER money. “And I’ve said all along and will continue to say this: anything that’s not sustainable makes me nervous,” she said in June in an apparent reference to creating new staff positions and programs. She advocated for funding professional development opportunities for existing staff to learn more about supporting students. She continued, “And I continue to believe that the dollars that we get should be used for all of our staff for staff development — some of that funding anyway.”
Freiheit said she understood. “So we have to find that really good balance of, first of all, here are our immediate needs and they need to be met with additional staffing just to help with those particular pieces. Like … getting kids up to the grade level. They might be half a year or a full year behind and we have to get them up there,” she said. The second part would be continuing to provide staff with training opportunities to grow in their roles, she said. “If we have any positions that are added, we need to be very careful, first of all, that they’re aware there could be a time limit on it.” If the new programs or staff work very well, WAPS could consider changing its budget to maintain the program or position long-term, Freiheit said. “Maybe that position is more effective than what’s been done previously. So there might be some systems change that could come as a result of how we look at being innovative and different with how we do our work,” she said.
Conversely, School Board member Karl Sonneman said he was not concerned about sustainability, in part because he feels education could look drastically different in a few years. “This is in many ways a revolutionary period. And I think we spend so much time worrying about not being able to afford what we’re going to see when we don’t really know what we’re going to see when we get there,” he said. He added, “We’ll solve the resource problem when we get there. But to be too concerned about it, to let it control what we’re doing now, I don’t think we should become too concerned about it, frankly.”