U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-Minn.) had a conference call on Wednesday, March 31 with a group of northwestern Minnesota school superintendents.

The discussion focused on the American Rescue Plan, an economic stimulus bill recently passed in Congress and signed by Pres. Joe Biden, and other ways the federal government could help rural Minnesota schools recover from the educational impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participating in the discussion were superintendents Lance Bagstad of Park Rapids Area Schools, Mike Kolness with East Grand Forks Public Schools, Chris Mills with the Stephen-Argyle Central School District in Marshall County and Larry Guggisberg with the Greenbush-Middle River School District in Roseau and Marshall counties.

“We’re heading into what we hope will be a way out of this,” Klobuchar said, “with the vaccines getting out, including all the way down to 16-year-olds, which I’m sure will be helpful with some of your kids in the schools.”

She repeated a comment by Duluth Mayor Emily Larson describing the end of the pandemic as “the lighthouse on the horizon.”

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Klobuchar also asked each superintendent to give a status report on conditions in their schools – “Are they every other day? Are they full-time every day?” – as well as what they’ve seen in terms of “learning loss” due to the pandemic, internet access for students doing distance learning and how they feel these issues should be addressed.

She said internet access for distance learners was already an issue before the coronavirus outbreak and some of the resulting changes are here to stay. “Just the way we’re using high-speed access and the integral part it will put in education,” she said.

American Rescue Plan

Klobuchar said Minnesota was allotted $1.3 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund, part of the stimulus bill signed on March 11.

She voiced hope that this funding will help Minnesota schools, for example, to staff summer make-up programs to address learning loss. Klobuchar recognized that after spending the entire school year teaching via Zoom calls, “we have to also get people who want to do it.”

Klobuchar also reported a push to fund major infrastructure improvements including internet service. She noted that 16 percent of Minnesota households don’t have broadband access.

“We actually, though, are doing better than a lot of places,” she said. “I keep using Minnesota as an example of how we’ve been able to map and get resources where we are.”

She said she is involved in “closing what we call the homework gap, so that kids don’t just have internet but that … they’re actually using it and they have the equipment to use it.”

Klobuchar acknowledged that many students have experienced mental health issues related to COVID isolation, missed graduations and canceled school activities.

“Nearly two-thirds of parents nationwide said their kid had experienced anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts during the pandemic,” she said. “To address this, the plan has $4 billion for mental health and substance abuse,” including new grants to allow schools to offer additional services.

“(Sen.) Tim Kane (D-Va.) and I have another bill with an emphasis on mental health and kids,” she said.

Finally, she said she and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) are co-sponsoring a bill to provide schools with technical assistance, training and equipment to meet federal nutrition standards.

“I know how (much) more difficult it is in smaller school districts to be able to comply,” she said. “I have urged the USDA to provide waivers and increase flexibility during the pandemic.”

She also talked about extending the funding to continue offering free school lunches to all students.

Park Rapids

“We’ve all navigated the barriers and the walls that were thrown out at us,” Bagstad said regarding disruptions caused by the pandemic. However, he said, most students who initially chose distance learning have returned to the classroom.

Knowing that concerns about disease transmission may continue for a while, the district started a virtual academy that is in the process of applying for state approval. “We have found that there are some families and some students who have really found a niche when it comes to distance learning,” said Bagstad. “That’s a positive out of the COVID bit.”

Turning to mental health, he reported receiving a lot of calls from parents who are frustrated with having to quarantine healthy kids. “It was very hard on some of these students, who were quarantined three different times for two weeks,” he said. “We haven’t had any confirmed transmission within our schools.”

Other than a period of hybrid learning for the upper grades, Bagstad said classes have been in-person for most of the year. Although parents were pleased about that, he said, “I had some folks that were shaming me in the paper … because kids were outside without masks. We just rolled with it.”

Describing quarantining healthy kids as “not good,” Bagstad said his staff agrees that they need more help but they are already struggling to fill mental health positions with qualified people, as well as to staff the summer make-up and enrichment program.

Bagstad voiced hope that Pres. Biden’s infrastructure plan could help with the school improvements for which the district is seeking a $59.8 million bond issue in an April 13 special election.

Klobuchar replied that, based on a conference call she participated in, schools will be a major focus of Biden’s infrastructure push.

“I think what he’s calling for, here, is $100 billion to help public schools,” she said, adding that she wants to make some of the money goes to rural districts with flexibility about how it can be spent.

“It’s for upgrading existing buildings, building new schools, updating technology labs (and improving) school kitchens,” she said.

Bagstad said a key takeaway from the pandemic, regarding school infrastructure, is that “space matters,” and federal help to ensure the schools have the space they need would be “huge.”

Looking ahead

Klobuchar asked clarifying questions and recapped what she had learned.

One of the superintendents commented that school districts are having difficulty recruiting support staff while unemployment benefits are higher than normal, “because they’re able to stay home and earn more than we could pay them to come back to the workforce.”

Klobuchar replied that, based on the experience of the 2007 financial crisis, the bump in benefits will likely be phased out state by state based on where unemployment rates are high.

“We just need to get more workers, period,” she said. “Hopefully, some of this money is gonna help you guys to hire people.”

Klobuchar added that immigration reforms could also help bring more legal workers to the workforce. “Getting that moving again just helps the whole employment situation,” she said.

She said she recently spoke with U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and emphasized the importance of getting kids back into the classroom.

The conference call ended with discussion of alternatives to the traditional path from high school to college, such as the Postsecondary Enrollment Option, College in the High School programs, online courses offered by area colleges and career academies partnering with local businesses.

Klobuchar stressed the importance of funding one- and two-year degrees as well as traditional four-year degrees to give students skills to enter the workforce.