Lawmakers question Minnesota education leaders on plans for fall classes

For the first time, state education officials appeared before lawmakers on Thursday to answer questions about the governor’s plan for schools this fall and the financial fallout from the pandemic.

With an acute focus on the 20-21 Safe Learning Guidance plan and federal funds related to the COVID-19, the Minnesota House Finance Committee peppered Department of Education and Department of Health officials with questions on a wide spectrum of school concerns, from transportation funds to where districts can find more specific COVID-19 data by zip code rather than by county.

Another concern at all levels was how to track student progress in an era of at least some distance learning.

"In superintendent meeting this week, we are providing a presentation and some expertise on reimaging assessment and data practices to guide learning for all students during the pandemic," said Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker. "And we are going to continue to offer that support to our schools so they can start the year by assessing where the unfinished learning is and addressing those in all three of those models of course."

The overall focus on funding includes $256 million being requested through the federal CARES Relief Fund:

•    Nearly $245 million of which will address operating and support costs
•    Another $5 million for supplies
•    And $6 million to cover any costs related to teacher saliva testing

When asked if schools could use funds to pay off unemployment insurance bills for laid-off workers, officials said federal guidelines do not allow for that.

"No it does not apply," said Deputy Commissioner Dr. Heather Mueller with the Department of Education. "Based on the based on federal parameters at this point in time."

While the CRF proposal is pending approval, districts will need to apply with budgets submitted by October 1.

"The important thing to note is any unallocated funds, by mid-November, we would be reallocating them based on historically underserved populations," added Mueller.