Rep. Dusty Johnson visited a Rapid City school Wednesday and told teachers that they’re “optimistic, can-do” people who are “clearing hurdles” to educate their students this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Johnson met with RCAS Superintendent Lori Simon, Principal Shannon Schaefers and four third-grade teachers at Meadowbrook Elementary.
Johnson asked the teachers what he should keep in mind for the next COVID-19 relief package coming through Congress.
Simon told him the district desperately needs more federal relief. The district’s COVID-19 expenses have surpassed $9 million, which won't be covered by the $4.1 million the district received from the previous CARES Act funding. $3 million of the funding went to the district’s one-to-one computer initiative to secure laptops for each student.
“Every day, we’re adding things to that list,” Simon said. “We already have to figure out how we’re going to make up that gap in a really tight general fund budget. It’s going to have some really negative long-term impacts on our budget.”
Johnson said the $9 million in COVID-19 expenses “is not a frills budget expense.”
“If we could double it, you’d still find truly meaningful investments that would do a better job of keeping staff and students safe,” he said.
Simon told Johnson that the lack of funding for public education is “really coming to light” as a result of the pandemic.
Congress has already provided substantial resources to our schools, Johnson said, noting future COVID-19 packages will have more educational funding as key components.
“Frankly, South Dakota spends half of its general fund budget on education,” he said. “To the extent that we’ve also made $1.25 billion available to the state government, that provides a lot of flexibility for the state to continue their financial obligations to districts. To put $1.25 billion into context, the whole state general fund budget for a year is $1.6 billion.”
Gov. Kristi Noem previously lobbied to spend the $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief to fill gaps in the state budget, but in late May said she would put it towards education, health care, small businesses and local governments, while holding some back hoping to use it for revenue loss.
Johnson asked to hear the teachers’ concerns for educating students in a pandemic, as well as their optimism to return to school and see their students after leaving schools abruptly mid-March when Noem shut down schools via an executive order.
“I don’t want to minimize the arguments that some people advanced about ‘oh, it’s going to be so hard for kids to wear masks. Well, admittedly,” Johnson told the teachers, pointing to Noem’s stance that kids will have an “extraordinarily difficult time wearing masks.”
But Johnson said his own children and their classmates are complying with the mask mandate in the Mitchell school district.
“What is best for the Mitchell school district is the administrators consulting with public health professionals, they’ll make that decision” about masks, Johnson said, noting he’s not interested in having a “one-size-fits-all” national approach to school mask policies or reopening, but favors local decisions.
The third-grade teachers said more of their colleagues want to be back in their classrooms rather than teach remotely when school starts on Sept. 8.
“As a school, we feel pretty proud that we all came in and we all really wanted to go back,” Tricia Hauf, a third-grade teacher at Meadowbrook, said.
Johnson asked the teachers if any of them had trouble connecting with their students in the spring when schools switched to remote learning. The group each said they had a couple of students who were a “challenge” to keep in touch with, harking back to the district’s estimate that as many as 40% of students couldn’t be reached this spring.
“What kept me awake at night in the spring is thinking of socioeconomically kids who are disadvantaged get so much from schools,” Johnson said.
Meadowbrook has less than 40% of students on free and reduced lunch, Schaefers said.
Simon said 2,000 students initially opted for off-campus learning, to which Johnson said the teachers have had to be both innovative and flexible with how they teach courses.
“There’s that phrase, ‘desperation brings forth creativity,’” Ashley Julius, a third-grade teacher at Meadowbrook, said. “This is a desperate (situation), but because of this, we’ve come together and we’re so much more efficient than we’ve ever been.”