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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Public And Private Schools Will Share $41 Million In COVID-19 Relief

Lockers in an empty school hallway.

Montana public school districts will receive roughly $41 million of relief funding in about two weeks. Schools say they need that money for things like buying masks, special cleaning equipment and supplies so they can open in the fall. New guidance from the U.S. Department of Education says private school students will receive an increased share of that funding.

Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton spoke with MTPR News Director Corin-Cates Carney to explain.

Corin Cates-Carney: How schools thought this COIVD-19 relief money from the CARES Act was going to be spread out changed last week with this guidance from the U.S. Education Department. Can you break that down for us?

Aaron Bolton: Right. The federal government is using a program known as Title I to disburse CARES Act funding to public schools. The program provides financial assistance to economically disadvantaged school districts by giving them a lump sum of money based on the number of low-income students in the area. A portion of that funding is required to provide services like tutoring to private school students.

Typically, districts determine how much they spend on non-public schools who want those services by counting each school’s low-income students. But Under the CARES Act, the U.S. Department of Education says districts need to base it on their total enrollment, increasing how much they will spend on non-public schools

There’s disagreement about whether or not Congress intended to change how the program works under the CARES Act. But a spokesperson Montana Office of Public Instruction told me the state is going to move forward under this new guidance.

Cates-Carney: Do we know how much more districts will spend on non-public school students ?

Bolton: As of now, no. Montana’s larger districts like Missoula and Billings are more likely to be impacted by this since there are more private schools within their boundaries. Most public and private schools I’ve talked with are still unclear about what how these new guidelines will actually impact them, or they’re not even aware of this change.

But Steve Johnson who is the Deputy Superintendent for Bozeman Public Schools says he’s not too concerned.

"We haven’t done the calculation yet, but it’s a fairly small percentage of our student population in Bozeman that actually attend private schools. Of those private schools, our past history has been that many of them choose not to participate in the federal funding for one or reason or another.”

A relatively low number of the 164 private schools in the state participate in Title 1 usually. And even fewer of the roughly 3,400 home schools opt in for these services. Combined, under 50 participate, equating to 26 public school districts spending about $1.5 million on those non-public schools. But some of those schools that haven’t historically participated might be incentivized to do so under the CARES Act because they could receive more funding for services than they typically would get with Title I, and these are unprecedented economic times.

Cates-Carney: What reaction are you hearing about this guidance?

Bolton: Public education associations at the state and national level say this is the privatization of public dollars and they’re pushing back heavily against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s interpretation of the CARES Act. I haven’t received clear information yet about where Montana’s congressional delegation sides on this.

Cates-Carney: So when this money does end up in Montana what are you hearing about how districts want to spend it?

Bolton: This biggest thing that I’ve been hearing about is technology. Many districts have been checking out laptops to students who need them, but they might not have enough, so they’ve been trying to buy them. But demand has been high and supply is pretty limited. Most districts are planning to finish out the remaining weeks of the school year remotely and they expect to replace some broken or outdated devices when they get them back. So many districts say they will be investing in more computers and other education tech over the summer so they’re ready if they need to close their doors again next school year.

But there are some other big costs districts could face depending on the number of students who weren’t able to meet state education standards while attending class remotely or online. Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau says that would likely mean extra days of school for those students.

"How we address that remediation and that learning gap that we talk about; will that be summer school, will that be for maybe 10 percent of our population starting two weeks earlier in August than other students? All of those discussions are going to occur with our staff between now and the end of year, and we'll have a game plan."

He says no matter how the district plans to get those students caught up, each additional day of class could cost up to $150,000, depending on how many staff are needed. Flatau says that could quickly eat into the roughly $1.2 million the district will get in relief funding. That’s how much the district will get before it has to set aside funding for non-public schools.

How much other districts will get will vary depending on the total number of low-income students in their area.

Cates-Carney: Aaron, thanks for your reporting.

Bolton: Thanks for having me.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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