U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, held a Zoom call with superintendents from west central Minnesota to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on their students and school systems Tuesday, Feb. 16.

Klobuchar said that Minnesota will receive around $30 billion, which will be distributed across the state. The Senate will be processing the bill more in depth next week with the goal of implementing it by mid-March.

This funding package will help schools take the next steps in improving classroom safety and COVID-19 response efforts, so she wanted to hear how local education leaders around the state believe the dollars should be spent.

Four superintendents attended, including Rick Sansted of Alexandria, Rick Bleichner of Herman-Norcross, Rick Ellingworth of Minnewaska and Dan Posthumus of Wheaton Area. They were each provided the time to discuss some of the main areas of need for staff and students.

“Understanding that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to rural schools,” Klobuchar said.

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Needs in flux

One common agreement among the superintendents was the need for flexibility on a school-to-school basis when allocating funding to specific areas, since unexpected changes seem to alter plans often.

“It’s like we’re trying to build the airplane while it’s flying,” Bleichner said.

Specific needs from district to district may differ, but they’re all somehow related to COVID-19. Ellingworth said that’s why they each need the freedom to spend the money where they see the most need in their respective communities.

Sansted said he’s looking forward to upcoming executive orders that may allow more flexibility when it comes to planning things like graduation and prom.

“We appreciate, as we’ve grown through the year, that we’ve been provided more trust in the execution of a safe plan,” Sansted said.

Meal assistance

Echoing Klobuchar’s statement, the superintendents also agreed that access to food assistance has been one of the biggest successes from the COVID-19 efforts across school districts.

Ellingworth commented on how the lunch program they offered helped lighten the economic load on families in the Minnewaska area.

“I think it was a great move,” Ellingworth said. “It just sent every good signal that could be sent.”

More than a matter of convenience for parents, Ellingworth said it addressed equity. Being able to tell families that the free and reduced lunch was available for everyone was one of the most positive messages he said he’s been able to share with parents in more than 40 years of being in his career.

Vaccine distribution

There were 127 staff members in the Alexandria school district who were vaccinated last week along with another 80 this week. After that, 100 more will need their first dose. Sansted estimated all employees would be finished with their second round of the vaccine by the end of March. This includes teachers, bus drivers, janitors, cooks and more.

“Bus drivers are on the top of our priority list,” Sansted said. “If you can’t get the kids to school, you can’t have school.”

As of Wednesday, Feb. 17, Ellingworth said all Minnewaska staff members have received their first vaccination or opted not to.

“I’ve been obsessed with the schools getting vaccines,” Klobuchar said. “I think it’s like the last hurdle for bringing everyone back. Even if it’s an extra month or so, it’s going to make all the difference for these kids.”

Sustaining through the summer

While starting to think ahead to summer school, Sansted said mental health is a priority for both students and educators.

Because of the mental and emotional strain many have experienced in the last year, he’s not sure how many teachers will be willing to continue serving students in the summer.

“Their level of exhaustion is present, and I don’t have a great way around that,” Sansted said.

If they were more creative in offering camps or other programming run by community members who are looking for work, Sansted said that could be more effective.

Once students hit fourth and fifth grade, Ellingworth said it becomes more difficult to intervene. He hopes Minnewaska teachers will respond and head summer initiatives so that younger students don’t miss out on windows of childhood development.

Beyond the here and now

Klobuchar said she’s finding the silver lining in the possibility of more federal funding for broadband internet access and support for teachers, even beyond the pandemic.

“I just feel more hope about this than I have in the past,” she said.

Since Sansted just started his role as superintendent last summer, he said that Ellingworth has been his mentor.

Although he hasn’t met with the other superintendents in person, Sansted said he’s felt very supported by them and can’t wait to meet up with his newfound friends at happy hour someday.

“People are working together to get things done to make sure we’re serving people effectively,” Sansted said. “The collaboration in my first six months has been amazing, and I’m not sure I would’ve been able to get through this without that teamwork.”

Klobuchar joked that Ellingworth would have to remind Sansted not to have that happy hour take place at the school.

“Look forward to seeing you in person soon at happy hour,” Klobuchar said before ending the Zoom session.