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Bullock earmarks $13 million in COVID aid for schools

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | November 25, 2020 1:50 PM

With just over a month left to finish spending federal coronavirus aid, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced Wednesday he is redistributing nearly $13 million to K-12 schools to cover costs related to COVID-19, including staffing, transportation, cleaning, personal protective equipment, and computers and other devices needed for students.

Congress gave states a Dec. 30 deadline to spend money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act when it passed the bill in March.

In July, Bullock directed $75 million of CARES Act money to K-12 schools to assist with reopening and other expenses. Of that first round, $10 million was earmarked for transportation needs, but schools spent less than half of it, said Marissa Perry, a spokeswoman for Bullock's office.

The $13 million now being distributed includes about $5.7 million of unused transportation funds and nearly $7.3 million in newly allocated CARES Act funds, Perry said.

Bullock also recently allocated $75 million of CARES Act money for grants to help businesses struggling due to COVID-19 restrictions, and about $25 million for increased unemployment benefits – an additional $200 a week for four weeks.

As the nation's COVID-19 case counts continue to reach record highs and experts fear an even greater wave of illness and deaths following Thanksgiving gatherings, the governor called on Congress to break through partisan gridlock and approve a new relief package for 2021.

“School administrators and educators are working diligently to provide educational opportunities for Montana’s students during challenging times – and we must do all we can to support them in sustaining safety measures in classrooms,” Bullock said in a statement. “While this additional funding will serve our schools with continued needs through the end of this year, our schools head into the new year empty-handed and Congress must come together to pass additional relief to support our students and teachers.”

Montana health officials reported 1,013 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the state's total number of active infections to 15,901, its number of hospitalizations to 462 and its cumulative case count to 58,565. At least 652 people in Montana had died of the disease, including 39 in Flathead County.

Among those killed by the virus was Ken Maddox, 69, a longtime middle school teacher and coach in Great Falls. The Montana Federation of Public Employees, a union that represents teachers and other workers, said Maddox's death on Saturday highlighted the need for increased public-health measures.

“The simple fact remains that we cannot continue to have schools operating in person when restaurants, bars and school activities continue to exacerbate community spread. Montanans must wear masks in all public areas, and businesses must be held accountable for noncompliance," the union said.

"Additionally, all school districts, boards and administrators must continue to do everything in their power to enforce public health guidelines, including mask-wearing, social distancing and quarantining. All Montanans can help protect their neighbors who serve on the frontlines by doing the same thing."

The first round of CARES Act funding for Montana schools included nearly $6.9 million for 23 schools in Flathead County. The list of schools now receiving additional funding includes 18 schools in the county. They are slated to receive about $2 million, including about $461,000 for technology.

The redistribution was based on responses to a questionnaire that Bullock's office sent to school districts in October. Private schools and special education co-ops also were eligible to request additional funding.

Citing the October survey, Perry said the governor's office anticipates some school districts will have unspent funds at the end of the year, totaling an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million. Under the CARES Act, they would be required to return that money to the state.

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com