Wyoming has received roughly $32.5 million in federal funding to help its 48 school districts offset costs incurred because of the novel coronavirus, the state announced last week.
The money, part of the gargantuan stimulus bill passed by Congress several weeks ago, will be doled out to Wyoming’s districts according to previously established formulas for providing federal money to districts with low-income students. It cannot be used to offset existing expenses — like payroll — but it can be used to offset the cost of steps taken by districts to brace for the coronavirus.
That could be a number of things, said Brian Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association. It could reimburse districts for laptops they gave to students so they could learn remotely or for Wi-Fi districts paid for to ensure their students could connect.
The list of allowable expenses is lengthy, covering everything from sanitizing facilities to providing mental health services. Districts can use the money to plan returns to school and for preparation efforts with other agencies and entities.
It could also be used, Farmer continued, to offset the costs for some district employees who aren’t necessarily working now as they had before, like librarians or campus supervisors. The federal stimulus bill requires districts make every effort to keep employees on the job. Farmer said it would be “interesting” to see if districts can use the money to offset paychecks for employees whose work has been cut short by distance learning.
“We are grateful for these timely funds,” state Superintendent Jillian Balow said in a statement. “Wyoming education should not go ‘back to normal.’ School districts and schools will utilize ESSER Funds to make schools more nimble and safer in the face of a resurgence or future pandemic.”
All of Wyoming’s K-12 schools have been shuttered for a month, with at least a handful having already decided to continue with virtual learning through the end of the year, all in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Natrona County School District is expected to take action Monday night on whether to extend school, regardless of any new state closure orders coming down from the state Health Department.
The money also comes as districts begin to look wearily toward a future of potential cutbacks, as revenues statewide continue to fall amid the downturn in the energy economy. That industry accounts for much of the funding for Wyoming’s K-12 schools, as with most state expenses.
“I think folks are comfortable in the financial situation today, but when we look into the future, there’s great concern both with the state’s ability to generate revenue and how costs today are going to have a continued impact into the future,” Farmer said.
The state’s K-12 schools are not the first to benefit from federal stimulus money. Thousands of businesses have tapped hundreds of millions of dollars in loans here, and the University of Wyoming will receive $6.6 million to help students dealing with the virus’ impacts.