COVID-19 affecting district finances, enrollment

Screenshot: Brookings School District Superintendent Klint Willert speaks to the Brookings School Board Monday evening.

Editor's note: A report in the Sept. 16 edition of The Brookings Register incorrectly stated Brookings School District plans for standardized testing for this school year. District administration is in communication with the state Department of Education in figuring out how to facilitate standardized testing this year as the state is not planning on waiving standardized tests. There are no current plans for mandatory COVID-19 testing for students who are going to take standardized tests. The story has been corrected below.

BROOKINGS – COVID-19 pandemic-related updates – including preliminary fall enrollment numbers, budget concerns, and student isolation practices – dominated discussion at Monday’s Brookings School Board meeting.

Superintendent Klint Willert began his report by discussing new isolation methods that are required of students and staff.

“There is some new information … because of something that transpired late last week which seems to be a bit of a departure from the state Department of Education regarding student exclusions from school when a student is determined to have been in close contact for a COVID-19 case,” Willert said.

“Part of what is required is … that, according to South Dakota Codified Law 13-28-7.3, ‘school boards or the school superintendent may,’ – and this is the nuance – ‘with the concurrence of the county health officer, exclude a student from school,’ and that gets into the quarantining for the 14 days. So, I have initiated contact with both the officials from Moody County… as well as Brookings County…and we’ll await their responses to determine the process of ‘concurrence of the county health officer,’” Willert said.

This is only a slight change for Brookings County in that the Bobcat Tracks Plan had already accounted for students to be home-isolated should they either test positive for COVID-19 or be in close proximity of another individual who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Willert also said that the individual is to isolate for 10 days and is to remain in isolation past the 10 days until they can provide a negative COVID-19 test or their physician/health care provider can supply the individual with a note stating that the side effects the individual is experiencing are unrelated to COVID-19. This extended isolation method is in the Bobcat Tracks Plan, due to Brookings County being in the substantial spread category based on a recent increase in COVID-19 cases, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Willert’s monthly update then turned to finances.

“We are in the process of receiving nearly $1.7 million to help offset some COVID-related expenses. And there is some guidance that is being provided to school business officials, so our director of business services will be participating in some calls … to learn exactly how those funds can be used,” Willert said. 

The superintendent said this new funding is in conjunction with CARES Act funding and must be used specifically for COVID-19 related expenses by Dec. 31 of this year.

South Dakota still has around $900 million in CARES funding to spend, Willert said, and some may be used to support schools.

“We are concerned about our fiscal outlook right now because of what our enrollment is. … You will notice that we are essentially back to where we were about four years ago in terms of our student enrollment. So, the gains that we had made have diminished – I would say in large part because of COVID. There are some families that have opted to either home school because of our mask requirement, there are some that have decided that they didn’t want to participate in school because of concerns that we might be shutting down – there were some speculations about that. We know that there were some open enrollments as a direct result of that (too). So that is something that we are hoping to get a little better handle on in figuring out what some of those factors are,” Willert said.

According to Willert’s report, attached to the school board agenda online, the district’s enrollment count as of Aug. 31 is 3,346, which is down 78 students from the same time last year.

“So when we are doing our official count, that of course includes the full-time students, but does it include the remote learners and do we get any credit for any homeschooler students that are utilizing some of our other encore classes?” board vice president Mellissa Heermann asked.

Willert said the enrollment count does not include “partial students,” or students who are only active in partial capacity for the district’s resources. He said when official numbers are tallied up at the end of the year, the numbers will probably appear “alarming to us.” 

The superintendent has been in contact with local and state officials, trying to advocate for some revenue replacement for districts due to “unforeseen circumstances. I would argue that had it not been for the pandemic, things would look much different than they do today.”

Remote learning students’ level of engagement is better this year than it was last year, Willert said, and the overall response to how things are going for those students is positive. He also mentioned that despite the tumultuous condition of the pandemic, students and teachers have been incredibly happy to be back at school. 

“As far as standardized testing goes, at this point and time there is no indication that there will be a waiver this year coming from either the federal or state level, so I do anticipate – at least at this time – there will be mandatory testing for the standardized testing to occur within the state,” Willert said. It is currently unknown how standardized testing will be proctored, but he said that he imagines the precautions will be thorough. 

Willert also announced that Dana Mertens has been hired as the new school district social worker to assist with any familial needs that arise that the school district can assist with. She will travel among all the district school buildings to assist as many students and families as she can, especially in dealing with COVID-19 specific issues.

The school district is still looking for bus drivers, Willert said. The school board unanimously approved an action item offering a $500 driver retention bonus each semester for drivers who work an average of 15 hours per week through this school year.

To watch the meeting, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jetjr4H00Ng, and to find the documents used at the meeting, visit https://agendas.brookings.k12.sd.us/.

Contact Matthew Rhodes at [email protected]

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