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Districts are considering sports field updates, new storm shelters

At the St. Clair R-XIII School District Board of Education meeting April 12, members deliberated how they would spend the millions of federal and state dollars flowing in to fund COVID-19-related expenses and then redirect some of the money toward capital projects. They considered updating the outdoor sound systems. Maybe they could add softball and baseball scoreboards. Superintendent Dr. Kyle Kruse said the restrooms near the sports fields need an update.

This is a recurring conversation among administrators within the county and state, according to officials at St. Clair, Union R-XI and Washington school districts. By allocating their COVID-19 relief dollars strategically, districts are starting plans to fund non-COVID-19-related building projects.

Under the guidelines of the multiple rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, this is allowed.

Districts can get refunded for immediate costs related to COVID-19, such as teachers salaries in the 2020-21 school year. They then can redirect the money they were expecting to spend on salaries to projects that have fewer strings attached, Kruse said.

“We’ll continue to do all of our COVID remediation preparation measures: masks, the disinfectants, the extra cleaning protocols, all the things that have helped us get through the school year,” he said during the board meeting, “but there is a pretty significant amount of money that is available, one time, to do some additional projects.”

This year, the St. Clair school district will be awarded a total of $3.9 million from the CARES and ESSER funds, including the estimated $2.4 million not yet allocated in ESSER III. They must use the second round of ESSER funds within two years.

Board members discussed directing the money to add streetlights in the passageway by the junior high and Highway 30, replace buildings’ interior lights with LEDs, smooth out asphalt breakages or add outdoor sound systems on the baseball and softball fields.

The Union school district has considered building new storm shelters, Union R-XI Superintendent Dr. Steve Weinhold said, but he still has to discuss that further with the board.

The exact ESSER III total has not yet been announced for his schools either, Weinhold said, though he expects it to be $3 million to $3.5 million. No district can access that money until October. These funds would be added to the $332,000 delivered last year through ESSER I, the $1.44 million that will be available in May through ESSER II, and the $228,000 CARES allocation approved April 6.

Weinhold said these funds are necessary to pay for the immediate costs, which have added up. They’re “not just hand sanitizer and wipes,” he said.

For example, the district has spent over $400,000 on virtual learning, he said. The price to update drinking fountains with COVID-safe water bottle filling stations easily reached $1,000 per model. The cost to replace Central Elementary’s HVAC system, which is necessary to increase air circulation in the pandemic, will reach $1 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year. The ESSER I money paid for virtual teachers’ salaries and the online learning platform Edgenuity, which costs $350 to $1,000 per student, according to Edsurge.

“Right now, we’re very happy that the federal government is helping assist us with this,” Weinhold said. “It’s a great place to be in, and we’re going to try to be fiscally sound with it and improve our district and the safety of our students as best we can.”

The Washington School District has received about $3 million through the first two rounds of both CARES and ESSER money, according to Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer. John McColloch, assistant superintendent of finance and operations, said during the March 31 board meeting that he expects the district to receive about $3.3 million in ESSER III.

The district has used its funds to pay for a variety of immediate needs, VanLeer said: computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, tables to increase social distancing, virtual learning programs and teacher salaries, to name a few.

The board is still determining how to redirect ESSER funds flexibly, but first “we want to make sure academic instructional support is nailed down and salaries are taken care of,” she said. To narrow the academic achievement gap that rose in the pandemic, she said she wants to direct the money toward social and emotional wellness support programs. Capital projects to come are still being discussed, but they could include enhanced air purification systems and LED lighting upgrades.