North Platte Public Schools sees its federal pandemic aid as an opportunity to grow its programs and elevate student education.
The district has received the first two installments of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money and has begun planning how to use upcoming ESSERS III funds.
North Platte’s ESSERS I allocation was $755,162, ESSERS II was $2,877,425 and ESSERS III will be $6,462,287.
The district’s executive finance director, Stuart Simpson described how the district used previous funding and what it is looking forward to.
Simpson said the district is coming to the end of the ESSERS I funding. ESSERS II was distributed to schools this summer.
“The only thing that I can state here is what we did for ESSERS I, the first round of dollars,” Simpson said, “because we haven’t even started expending ESSERS II and we are still in the process of budgeting for ESSERS III.”
He said the district used about $380,000 from ESSERS I to pay for such things as disinfectant sprayers, temperature check machines, continual cleaning of the buildings, plastic dividers and additional desks to enhance social distancing.
“We brought teachers in off contract to start the year and walk through a normal school day in August 2020,” Simpson said. “That cost us $200,000. Then we hired additional health assistants, technology support and mental health services at another $90,000.”
The district also distributed $63,000 to private schools. The Nebraska Department of Education “requires us to support the private schools, as they are (considered) our students,” he said.
Our Redeemer Lutheran School and North Platte Catholic Schools each received funds, as well.
NPCS Superintendent Kevin Dodson said the Catholic schools received approximately $57,857, the bulk of which was used to update technology for both students and staff members.
Wende Carson, principal at Our Redeemer, said the school received about $5,000, which was used to purchase Chromebooks for the school.
ESSERS II use focused on classroom instruction and learning loss, Simpson said.
“We have additional facilitators to support teachers in the classroom in technology, health assistants and mental health support,” Simpson said.
Funding was also set aside to upgrade the heating, ventilation and air conditioning at Adams Middle School to improve air quality.
Simpson said how the district will use ESSERS III funds is still being worked out in the budget that must be finalized by Sept. 20.
When he and Tina Smith, the district’s communications director, “put together our responsibility for ESSERS III,” Simpson said, “the first thing was that we had to take input from the public on the district’s return-to-school plan.”
“We will then reopen that document in December so that we can get additional public input, close it back down and reopen it again next summer.” Simpson said. “It’s a constant process as things develop and change across the nation with reopening schools.”
That plan must be reexamined every six months for the next two years, he said. Each time the district will examine the public input concerning how best to utilize the funds.
“In that, we’re looking at items from mental health to summer learning to after-school learning,” Simpson said, “to support of career and technical education.”
He said the district has opportunity over the next three years to modify the budget to meet the community’s changing needs.
“So it’s a continual modification of expending the dollars where needs arise the most,” Simpson said. “That’s why we put this survey together. That’s why we look to our patrons in the community on addressing what we need to do.”
Programs the district adds with ESSERS funds will not necessarily be dropped when those funds no longer exist.
“No matter what we’re doing, whether it’s our facilitators or health care or transportation, whatever the case may be,” Simpson said, “that will be the discussion the district will have to have in two years.”
Simpson said the district will decide what it can sustain by determining priorities at that time.
“We cannot say that right now because obviously we get some opportunities to help our students grow in the district,” Simpson said. “But we also know it’s not infinite, and so in that, we need to know that in a couple of years we’re going to have to sit down, roll up our sleeves and figure out what we’re going to do in the coming years with the programs that we’re doing and what’s the most beneficial for our students.”
Simpson said the district is dreaming big.
For one thing, “we’re talking about how we can get reading intervention into the middle school,” Simpson said.
Smith said ideas are still coming out through the district survey.
“I think it ties right back into a couple of things.” Smith said. “ESSERS has given us the opportunity to look at what the community needs as well.”
The community has indicated the need for skilled labor, Smith said.
“If we can create a space with this ESSERS fund to enhance learning as well as meet the need of our community, it is forward-feeding,” Smith said.
She said some of the pieces to the puzzle aren’t just wish-list items.
“It’s definitely something our community is asking for and in our current survey, it’s trending in a higher direction for current tech ed,” Smith said. “It’s really cool to see that need, to hear that need and to be able to maybe have some funding to facilitate that.”
Smith said North Platte Public Schools has some opportunities in collaboration with Mid-Plains Community College.
“Those (opportunities) include Level III welding, welding certification that a student can get while they’re in high school while working at the college level,” Smith said.
Mid-Plains’ nursing program is another possibility, she said.
“Those are things that we see as a community need and we can start working on those,” Smith said.
Simpson emphasized the plan will need to adjust as the needs of the community change in the next few years.
“We’re still in the process of building that airplane,” Simpson said.