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How Minnesota Schools Are Spending COVID Relief Money

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A big payday for Minnesota schools has districts deciding how to spend millions.

Some $1.3 billion has poured in as part of federal COVID-19 relief money to get the state's 550 school districts back on track.

WCCO visited two districts to see what the investment means for schools, big and small.

It may look a lot like any other health clinic in the state swamped with potential COVID-19 cases right now, but it's not.

Angela Elhard is the Grand Rapids School District Nurse.

"Just within the last week, we're seeing an increase in positive cases, as well as people needing to get tested," Elhard said.

Only Elhard serves as a school nurse in Grand Rapids.

A room in the high school transformed into a molecular testing site for the virus, with results in 20 minutes.

"The safety of the staff and students is why I'm here," Elhard said.

Matt Grose is Grand Rapids School District Superintendent.

"From the beginning our school district has worked to keep kids in school and people at work," Grose said. "This is really an extension of that."

District 318 took advantage of a $200,000 federal grant to buy the equipment to have the ability to test its 4,000 students.

It's on top of $11 million the district received as part of American Rescue Plan money.

"We're grateful, but we're also trying to do our best to work with those and get the highest impact from them," Grose said.

So far, the district's spent the dollars on PPE, cleaning supplies and new positions like school counselors.

Three hours south, at Frost Lake Elementary in St. Paul, the money has already added up to a WINN.

Yes, here, you add an N.

Kris Anderson is a WINN teacher this school year, one of 48 the district hired to get first and second graders, stuck at home for much of their last two school years up to speed in reading.

Kris Anderson With Students, WINN Program St. Paul Schools
(credit: CBS)

"WINN is 'What Is Needed Next.' The students are coming in, and there are lots of needs," Anderson said. "When they're in-person, I'm able to see directly what they're doing and give them that teach point right then and there, where online I wasn't able to do that."

Anderson says the pandemic has caused a large portion of those grade levels to lag behind.

She meets with some students several times a day for a more targeted approach.

"It's been needed for a very long time," she added.

Positions paid for through St. Paul's $207 million. That's the most of any district in Minnesota.

St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard says they are focused on learning loss and keeping the doors to their 67 schools open.

Still, like so many businesses, finding the staff to fill brand new positions has been a challenge.

"This has allowed us to focus ... on the individual student," Gothard said. "When you have money and resources but you don't have the people that can provide some of that immediate support."

Schools have three years to spend their portion of the ARP funding, all dictated by a federal formula. The Minnesota Department of Education then works alongside each school district to sign off on their plan and to track it to make sure the money is spent in meaningful ways.

Stephanie Graff is assistant commissioner in the Office of Educational Opportunity.

"Implementing strategies that we know ... are going to meet the academic needs, the mental health needs and the social and emotional needs of our students," Graff said.

Graff says the pandemic brought disparities to the surface.

"It really is thinking about the last year and half or so and the impact of the pandemic on all students. It had a particular impact on some students, students of color, Indigenous students, our students from low income families, our students that, you know, don't have English as their first language or students with disabilities," she said.

With a particular focus to fix that, in the form of big checks and balances in the years ahead.

"Making sure on the other end of this pandemic that our gaps are closed and that students are better off," Graff said.

Oct. 1 was the deadline for districts to submit their plans on spending the money to the education department.

Schools took public comments and some conducted surveys with parents last spring before making any decisions.

Have questions about how much your school district received and its plans to use that money? You'll find a list here.

EMERGENCY COMPONENT - LOCAL

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